Jack Weil, a Virginia-based senior official in the U.S. Justice Department, shocked many in his testimony in a Seattle federal court by repeatedly arguing that young children as young as 3 or 4 can be taught to represent themselves in immigration court. Weil was deposed by the ACLU after the Justice Department recommended him as a longtime immigration judge who could serve as an expert witness in a case arguing that immigrant children in deportation cases should be given attorneys. The government’s position remains that children are not entitled to an attorney.
Weil is a high-ranking judge whose role is to train other judges in the nation’s 58 immigration courts.
In February, Thomas Homan, the head of ICE’s removal operations told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the U.S. had sent home 7,643 immigrants who had arrived as children between the 2012-2015 fiscal years. These children were largely from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and had arrived in the United States via the southwest border.
Advocates for undocumented immigrants have argued that an immigrant’s chances at being permitted to stay in the U.S. are far better if they have legal counsel in navigating a very confusing legal process. Neither children or adults are guaranteed a taxpayer-funded attorney and thousands of children must represent themselves every year against Homeland Security lawyers.
“I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds,” Judge 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.”
Child psychologists and legal experts alike found these statements to be ridiculous, citing that children at this age are barely able to form complete sentences. Additionally, migrant children of this age may not speak English and are unlikely to read in any language. The deputy legal director of the ACLU at first believed the judge had misspoken because his claims were so outrageous, and did not know how to act when Weil repeated them.
“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 did not respond to email or calls Friday. He emailed the Washington Post to say his comments don’t “present an accurate assessment of my views on this topic” and were being “taken out of context.”
Lauren Alder Reid, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, said in a statement: “The assistant chief immigration judge was speaking in a personal capacity when he made that statement.”
It is unclear why Weil would suggest that his claims have been taken out of context. The ACLU has posted the entire transcript from the Seattle deposition. The transcript includes this gem, as recounted by the LA Times:
“Are you aware of any experts in child psychology or comparable experts who agree with the assessment that 3- and 4-year-olds can be taught immigration law?” Ahilan Arulanantham, a Los Angeles-based deputy legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, asked Weil during the deposition in October.
“I haven’t read any studies one way or another,” Weil said, according to the transcript.
“What about like a 1-year-old?” Arulanantham said.
“I mean, I think there’s a point that there has to be communication,” Weil said.
The next hearing in this case will be March 24.