Immigration Law

Immigration judge said some 4-year-olds don't need lawyers in deportation cases, ACLU lawyer claims

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It might seem obvious that a 3- or 4-year-old child needs a lawyer at a deportation hearing.

But children as young as 3 or 4 years old can represent themselves, an immigration judge reportedly stated or implied in a deposition in a federal civil rights case last year, so long as he takes enough time to explain the law to them.

Filed in 2014 by advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Seattle suit seeks to require appointed legal counsel for all children in U.S. immigration proceedings who can’t afford a lawyer, reports the Washington Post (reg. req.). Three of the 14 juvenile plaintiffs were younger than 5 years old at some point during the proceedings.

In an October deposition, assistant chief immigration judge Jack Weil, a witness selected by the U.S. Department of Justice who often trains other immigration judges, made comments he now says were taken out of context and inaccurate.

“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.”

A spokeswoman for the DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review told the Post that Weil’s comments reflect his personal views and “must also be taken in context as part of a four-hour deposition in which Mr. Weil spoke about various techniques, procedures, and safeguards that can be employed by immigration judges, as warranted, to provide fundamentally fair hearings to all respondents in immigration proceedings.”

Spokeswoman Lauren Alder Reid also said in a written statement, “At no time has the Department indicated that 3- and 4-year-olds are capable of representing themselves.”

However, the lawyer who took the deposition, deputy legal director Ahilan Arulanantham of the ACLU of Southern California, says there was no mistake about what Weil meant.

The judge’s answer was in response to the following question, Arulanantham told the Post:

“It must be true that there’s some children that are so young that even if they receive the notice and even if they’re given an explanation by the judge, they’re still not going to understand what’s going on, right?”

Arulanantham said that in response Weil said, “I have to do a case-by-case basis determination.” Weil then made the comment about teaching immigration law to 3- and 4-year-olds.

At that point, Arulanantham continued, he thought this “outrageous” response by Weil must be a mistake, so he asked more questions. It then became clear, the attorney told the newspaper, that Weil had meant what he said.

K&L Gates is also representing plaintiffs in the case.

See also: “ABA urges adequate legal representation for unaccompanied immigrant minors”

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