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As the federal government continues to target Central American women and children in immigration raids, a top Justice Department official has said it's justified to force children as young as three and four years old to represent themselves in court.

The ACLU, on behalf of 14 minors facing deportation, is suing the federal government in a Seattle district court to force them to provide lawyers for every child who goes to immigration court. Currently, there is no requirement for children to be provided with legal counsel, leaving children sometimes younger than five years old to represent themselves.

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Judge Jack H. Weil, an assistant chief immigration judge who oversees training for immigration judges in all immigration courts nationally, was brought in as an expert witness to defend the Justice Department's policies. Weil's deposition, part of an ongoing case, was given in October of last year; the deposition transcript was released by the ACLU last week. His responses to questions from Ahilan Arulanantham, the deputy legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, reveal a troubling position on the capacity of young children to make life-altering decisions:

  1. Weil first said he that he thinks it's very possible for young children to be trained to defend themselves alone in court:
  1. Then he said he himself has trained children as young as three and four years old to be ready to represent themselves in trial:
Weil deposition
  1. And then he goes on to admit that his belief that three and four-year-olds are equipped to represent themselves in these proceedings is not actually based on any evidence:
  1. He also said that adults who are not attorneys (who could be parents or people not even related to the child) can count as appropriate legal representation:
Weil deposition
  1. Weil rounded out his testimony (which one mental development expert told the Washington Post was "preposterous") by laying out one of the fundamental flaws in the system, that it places the onus on a child to make significant decisions about their own fate:
Weil deposition

Children in these cases, particularly Central American children who have fled their home countries after facing persecution, are asked questions about when and why they left their countries. Their answers are crucial to whether or not they're sent back to potentially dangerous circumstances. The uptick in raids on women and children has been broadly criticized by immigration lawyers, advocates, and a long list of house Democrats.

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And meanwhile, a Senate bill was also introduced in January which, if it passes, would require the government to provide lawyers to all unaccompanied children in immigration court.

Weil told The Washington Post his testimony has been "taken out of context" and does not “present an accurate assessment of my views on this topic"; he deferred further comment to the Department of Justice. For its part, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice appeared to disown Weil’s testimony. They told Fusion in a statement:

The Department of Justice recognizes that immigration court proceedings are more effective and efficient when individuals are represented.  To that end, the Department has taken a number of measures to increase access to counsel for individuals facing removal proceedings, and children in particular.  For example, in 2014 the Justice Department and the Corporation for National and Community Service announced justice AmeriCorps, a strategic partnership, now in its second year, to enhance the effective and efficient adjudication of immigration proceedings involving certain unaccompanied children.

The Administration continues to urge Congress to help improve the efficiency of our immigration court system by supporting needed Immigration Judge Teams and Board of Immigration Appeals attorneys, by supporting the successful Legal Orientation Program, and by supporting legal representation for unaccompanied children.

The assistant chief immigration judge was speaking in a personal capacity when he made that statement. The assistant chief immigration judge’s statement does not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Justice.

This post has been updated with the above comment received from the Department of Justice.