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Can a 3-year-old defend themselves in immigration court? Alum shows they can’t

UH alumna and immigration lawyer Amy Maldonado had her own response to an assistant chief immigration judge who said children as young as 3 years old are capable of defending themselves in immigration court.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that Judge Jack H. Weil said in a sworn deposition that he’s taught immigration law to 3 and 4-year-old children and that it is possible for them to represent themselves in removal proceedings.

Maldonado, who graduated from UH in 1995, started compiling videos of toddlers defending themselves in mock immigration courts on her YouTube page after a private group conversation on Facebook with a few lawyer friends.

“(Weil’s) opinion is ridiculous,” Maldonado said. “We recognize throughout our judicial system that children are not competent to sign contracts or go through any type of legal proceedings.”

She created a channel to upload the collection of videos in which lawyers hold mock trials with their children to demonstrate Weil’s theory.

Weil is an assistant chief for the U.S. Department of Justice and is responsible for training immigration judges and court staff.

“It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience,” said Weil about toddlers learning immigration law. “They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.”

His statement was part of a testimony in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union that challenged the lack of government appointed counsel for children in removal proceedings.

Maldonado said that attorney and friend Amber Weeks was the first to make a video with her daughter and share with the group, and then others began to do the same.

In the video, a lawyer can be heard asking a child, “If you were removed, would you like to designate a country of removal? What country would that be?” to which the child designates “pizza.”

Maldonado said that immigration law is just as complex as the tax code and thinks it’s impossible for 3 year olds to learn.

Sergio Estrada, 25, experienced a removal proceeding when he was 20 years old. Although he had a lawyer, he says that he does not think that he could have successfully represented himself in court.

“I was scared and very disoriented before my proceeding,” Estrada said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Maldonado said that immigration law is civil and not criminal so it does not provide a right to counsel, and as a result some children and their immediate family are left to hire privately paid attorneys, while some depend on pro bono attorneys or go unrepresented.

According to a 2014 Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University immigration report, unaccompanied children are represented by an attorney 32 percent of the time.

Statistics also show that the court allowed 73 percent of children with an attorney to stay in the U.S., whereas only 15 percent of unrepresented children stayed.

“The Justice Department is basically trying to say that due process is met,” said Maldonado. “That’s why (Weil), who is very accomplished and very intelligent testified to something so ridiculous.”

Many children enter the U.S. alone fleeing violence in their home country, and many are deported back to that same violence.

Clinical associate professor and UHCL Immigration Clinic director Geoffrey Hoffman said that children are placed in removal proceedings for various reasons such as being unaccompanied, as part of a family unit categorized as adults with children and for overstaying their visas.

Maldonado says the repercussions of deporting unrepresented children are serious. She hopes that the videos on her channel will raise awareness on the issue.

“It’s unjust. It clearly has fundamental due process concerns,” said Maldonado. “I wanted to help (with) putting it out there to the larger public to see what’s really going on.”

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