Editorial: In Defense of Migrant Children

Federal judge includes thousands of immigrant children in a legal process to assign them lawyers.

Familias y niños migrantes caminan en línea en el Centro de Detención de la Patrulla Fronteriza en Brownsville, Texas.
Familias y niños migrantes caminan en línea en el Centro de Detención de la Patrulla Fronteriza en Brownsville, Texas.
Foto: Eric Gay / Getty

When immigration judge Jack Weil said that he has “taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds,” it was clear that something was terribly wrong in the process carried out against minors targeted for deportation.

The statement made by the judge – who is in charge of training other judges – is an aberration aimed at demonstrating that a “fair and full hearing” can be held at immigration court against a minor without legal representation.

A few days ago, this unsustainable argument drove federal judge Thomas Zilly to extend a lawsuit filed in 2014 by a handful of minors to thousands of children and youths living in the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and the territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands – that is, the territorial jurisdiction of the Ninth District Court of Appeals.

Judge Zilly’s lawsuit and actions come as a response to the Obama Administration’s decision to prioritize the deportation of Central American minors who came to the U.S. fleeing the violence in their countries.

Unlike regular judges, immigration judges do not act independently, and belong to immigration authorities. People who appear in front of immigration judges do not automatically have a right to an attorney the way a murder suspect does, for instance.

Federal immigration regulations establish “reasonable opportunity” for every individual to present proof and interrogate witnesses brought in by the government, but this procedure is far from the reality. The children and youths who appear in immigration court do not speak English and are unable to defend themselves from the adults who intend to deport them through a process that is already extremely complicated for an English-speaking adult.

Although the White House has supported proposals introduced in Congress to finance lawyers for these minors, the bills were rejected by the Republican majority and described as assistance for undocumented people.

Judge Zilly’s decision has limited geographical range, but adding thousands of minors to the lawsuit reinforces the national clamor to find solutions to this injustice. We should not have to listen to Judge Weil’s such outrageous remarks as “it takes a lot of patience” to teach immigration law to children, and that “they get it.”