US immigration
Children climb up the border fence between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, United States.Reuters

A US federal judge claims migrant toddlers have the ability to defend themselves in immigration court, a deposition in a court case brought by advocates calling for government-appointed attorneys for young immigrants reveals.

"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 patiences," Judge Jack Weil said. "They get it. It's not the most efficient, but it can be done."

The comment from the Virginia-based judge who trains his peers, comes amid an influx of unaccompanied minors crossing into the US, The Los Angeles Times noted. US Customs and Border Protection reported 20,455 unaccompanied youngsters were caught at the border from October to the end of January.

Adult and young migrants are not guaranteed legal counsel in immigration court in the US. However, immigration advocates have argued that a migrant's ability to make informed decisions and their chances of being allowed to remain in the US if they are given legal representation. Congressional Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, have introduced legislation that would appoint lawyers to unaccompanied minors or immigrant youths who have been abused, tortured or have been victims of other violence.

According to The Washington Post, Weil's claims were ridiculed by legal and child-psychology experts, who noted that three and four-4-year-olds' milestones include saying simple sentences, building block towers and cooperating with other children.

"I nearly fell off my chair when I read that deposition," Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, told the Post. "Three- and four-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's deposition comes as part of a July 2014 class-action lawsuit brought on by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups on behalf of youths in a Seattle federal court who seek court-appointed counsel. Later in the deposition, Weil maintained his assertion that toddlers could be taught immigration law.

"I've told you I have trained 3-year-olds and 4-year-old in immigration law. You can do a fair hearing," he said. "It's going to take you a lot of time. But I really think that a great alternative to termination 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 them some help."

Weil was asked if he meant legal counsel when he referred to "help," and he responded: "Counsel allows me to be effective. They allow me to be efficient." The federal judge's deposition had been submitted by the government to support its position that legal counsel should not be mandatory for youths in immigration court.

In an email to The Post, Weil said his statements do not "present an accurate assessment of my views on this topic" and said they were "taken out of context."

Lauren Alder Reid, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, stated: "At no time has the Department indicated that 3 and 4 year olds are capable of representing themselves. Jack Weil was speaking in a personal capacity and his statements, therefore, do not necessarily represents the views of EOIR or the Department of Justice."

Reid added that the judge's comments "must also be taken in context as part of a 4-year 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."