Can young children represent themselves in immigration court? One federal immigration judge thinks so.
Judge Jack Weil is assistant chief immigration judge for the U.S. Department of Justice. Part of his job includes coordinating training for other immigration judges and court staff. In a recently unsealed deposition, he asserted that migrant children as young as 3 are capable of representing themselves in deportation hearings.
The judge was speaking as an expert witness on behalf of the government in a case about whether unaccompanied minors who cross the border into the United States should be provided with legal counsel.
In his opinion, no.
"I've taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience," Weil said. "They get it. It's not the most efficient, but it can be done."
"I have trained 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in immigration law. You can do a fair hearing," the judge elaborated. "It's going to take you a lot of time. But I really think that a great alternative to terminating a case for a child who may be eligible for relief where there's no counsel is to proceed very slowly, very carefully, and I'm going to tap every single resource I can to see if I can get the some help."
(The American Civil Liberties Union posted a transcript of the hearing last month. There is no guarantee of counsel in immigration court.)
So: Can 3- and 4-year-olds competently represent themselves in court? Immigration attorney Amy Maldonado decided to find out. She created a YouTube page where (adult) immigration lawyers put toddlers on trial.
"I actually have seen children in immigration court without lawyers," said Amy Maldonado, a business immigration attorney who lives in East Lansing, Mich. "They're little children who can't read and can barely understand what's going on."
She's part of a Facebook group in which immigration attorneys regularly discuss articles and news related to their field. Many in the group were frustrated by Weil's comments, and one lawyer, Amber Weeks, posted a video of herself grilling her toddler with immigration court questions.
At the group's urging, Maldonado created the YouTube page collecting videos of people holding mock deportation hearings with their children.
The children representing themselves -- just like actual 3- and 4-year-olds are currently expected to do -- face off against questions like "Do you designate a country for removal?" "What kind of relief would you like to seek?" and "Are either of your parents U.S. citizens?" You know. Totally normal stuff little kids know.
See how they do:
Though the videos are funny and charming, they underscore a serious issue.
"Immigration laws are more complex than the tax code," Maldonado said. "I wouldn't expect an adult to be able to explain what the nexus of their asylum claim is. And you're talking about people who are traumatized, who don't speak English fluently. … To me, it's a clear due-process violation."
Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter @jessica_roy.