As It Happens

U.S. immigration judge says three-year-olds can represent themselves in court

At three years old, most children are moving around on their own, talking in full sentences, and learning the alphabet. But one senior immigration judge in the United States thinks they're also old enough to understand immigration law well enough for them to represent themselves in immigration court.
Central American immigrants wait to be transported after turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on December 8, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)
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At three years old, most children are moving around on their own, talking in full sentences, and learning the alphabet. But one senior immigration judge in the United States thinks they're also old enough to understand immigration law well enough for them to represent themselves in immigration court.

Ahilan Arulanantham is deputy legal director of the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU.org)
 In a deposition lasting four hours, in a case seeking government-appointed lawyers for unaccompanied minors, Judge Jack Weil said that three and four-year-olds are capable of defending themselves in immigration court.

Ahilan Arulanantham is the lawyer who took the deposition, which was made public recently, in 2015. 

I have to do a case-by-case basis. I've taught immigration law literally to three and four-year-olds. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it. - Honourable Jack H. Weil

Weil is a senior immigration judge responsible for the training of other judges across the country. That has members of the ACLU concerned, including the lawyer who conducted the deposition. 

"He (Weil) told me that he himself had trained three and four-year-olds in immigration law," Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, tells As it Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"That position is preposterous, but that is the position of the federal government, and it's actually what they do in deportation hearings every day."
 

Arulanantham says in 2014 roughly 60,000 children sought asylum in the United States. Only half of them received legal representation.

Weil later stated that that his quotes were taken out of context. Arulanantham disagrees.

"I asked for clarification and he was unambiguous," says Arulanantham. "He said I have done it, it takes time, it takes patience, but you can give three and four-year-olds fair hearings."

Arulanantham says he asked Judge Weil if there were any studies or evidence available that say that three-year-olds are capable of defending themselves in court. 

"He said I'm not aware of any studies one way or the other, but I've done it," says Arulanantham.

Arulanantham also says the success rate in court for unrepresented children is extremely low. 

"There's a lot of legal complexity in asylum cases and other immigration cases," says Arulanantham.

The full deposition is available on the ACLU's website here.

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