Immigration

Judge Claims Immigrant Toddlers Are Able To Represent Themselves ‘Fairly’ In Court

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File

Immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala who entered the country illegally board a bus after they were released from a family detention center in San Antonio, Tuesday, July 7, 2015.

Immigrant children trying to stay in the United States are often left to defend themselves against a team of skilled government lawyers in court proceedings because they are not entitled to legal counsel. Now, one immigration judge is claiming that three and four-year-olds can learn immigration law well enough to represent themselves, the Washington Post reported.

“I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds,’’ Jack H. Weil, an immigration judge, said in sworn testimony in a deposition in Seattle, Washington federal court, according to the publication. “It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.’’

He made the claim twice more in the deposition, stating, “I’ve told you I have trained 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in immigration law. You can do a fair hearing. It’s going to take you a lot of time.’’

Weil’s statement are part of a lawsuit spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant advocacy groups calling on the government to provide appointed legal counsel for children who are unable to afford one themselves in court proceedings. He insisted that the comments were taken out of context in a follow-up email with the Washington Post.

But the scenario that Weil presents too often aligns with the reality for many of these children who do not have legal representation.

Although three-year-olds know about 1000 words, it’s very likely that some of the questions children — and even adult immigrants — may be asked go beyond the scope of their understanding of daily life.

When ThinkProgress accompanied a 12-year-old border crosser with her legal representative in an Arlington, Virginia-based immigration courtroom last year, the judge asked questions involving various legal jargon like “deportation” and “Special Immigrant Juvenile Status,” a special form of immigration relief for children. Without the legal representative present, it’s unlikely that the shy middle schooler could have answered the questions on her own. As one pro bono lawyer for the children observed, some children carried teddy bears for comfort, while another “wet his pants when he faced the judge.”

Unaccompanied minors who have lawyers are much better equipped to navigate the legal court system and stay in the country. But only about one-third of children are able to secure an attorney in pending cases. Surveying a decade’s worth of court reports, a Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse report “found that whether or not an unaccompanied juvenile had an attorney was the single most important factor influencing the case’s outcome.”

As the Vera Institute of Justice explained, many migrant children “meet conditions that would allow them to remain in the country legally,” but “going through immigration proceedings without legal help is daunting.” An estimated 40 percent of unaccompanied minors are likely eligible for some form of relief from removal.

Many immigrant children, particularly in the past few years, have entered the United States from the three Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, where conditions deteriorated after a gang truce ended in 2012. Sending them back to their home countries could mean facing conditions akin to a death sentence. According to the Associated Press, there were 1,399 homicides in El Salvador in January and February alone, up 118 percent from the same time period last year, and children aren’t spared.