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A senior Justice Department official is arguing that 3- and 4-year-olds can learn immigration law well enough to represent themselves in court, staking out an unconventional position in a growing debate over whether immigrant children facing deportation are entitled to taxpayer-funded attorneys.

Jack H. Weil, a longtime immigration judge who is responsible for training other judges, made the assertion in sworn testimony in a deposition in federal court in Seattle. His comments highlighted the plight of thousands of juveniles who are forced to defend themselves each year in immigration court amid a surge of children from Central America who cross the Southwestern U.S. border.

“I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds,” Weil said. “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 repeated his claim twice in the deposition, also saying, “I’ve told you I have trained 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in immigration law,” according to a transcript. “You can do a fair hearing. It’s going to take you a lot of time.”

Legal and child-psychology experts ridiculed Weil’s assertions, noting that key milestones for 3- and 4-year-olds include cooperating with other children, saying simple sentences and building towers of blocks.

“I nearly fell off my chair when I read that deposition,” said Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University who is a witness for the plaintiffs in the Seattle case. “Three- and 4-year-olds do not yet have logical reasoning abilities. It’s preposterous, frankly, to think they could be taught enough about immigration law to be able to represent themselves in court.”

Weil’s deposition came in a case in which the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant rights groups are seeking to require the government to provide appointed counsel for every indigent child who cannot afford a lawyer in immigration court proceedings.

The Justice Department is contesting the lawsuit.

Weil, in a brief email, said his statements don’t “present an accurate assessment of my views on this topic” and were being “taken out of context.” He said he would need Justice Department permission to speak further and did not respond to subsequent emails.

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