WASHINGTON -- The top Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat has denounced the fact that toddlers and children are still going without lawyers in deportation cases and lambasted an immigration judge who downplayed that injustice.
He directed most of his ire toward statements by immigration Judge Jack Weil, who said in a deposition released last week that even toddlers can represent themselves.
"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 patience," the judge said during the deposition in October. "They get it. It's not the most efficient, but it can be done."
Leahy said he thinks he would have fired the judge "on the spot."
"I've been on this committee for decades, a lawyer for decades, I've never heard such a stupid, stupid, stupid thing from a judge or anybody else as that," he said at a Judiciary Committee hearing.
Later, he called it "a mark against this country" and said "it is a bad, bad image for a judge who would say something that stupid, that reprehensible, to be the face of the United States."
The exchange with Lynch -- who insisted as department officials have before that Weil was speaking in a personal capacity -- was an awkward one, since the Obama administration has simultaneously said representation for children is helpful and pressed forward with cases for children without it.
Lynch first told Leahy she shared his "puzzlement" over the statements, which Weil told The Washington Post had been taken out of context. Leahy interjected. "I'm not puzzled by it -- it's sheer anger," he said.
Having representation often makes the difference between asylum and deportation for women and children. Children with representation were allowed to remain in the U.S. in nearly three-quarters of cases from 2012 to 2014 analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Children going before judges alone were allowed to stay in only 15 percent of cases.
There are outside groups and some governmental efforts to provide children and others with pro bono lawyers, but they can't meet demand. Apprehensions of families and unaccompanied children, most of them seeking asylum from Central American countries, surged in 2014. Many are still in removal proceedings. Numbers are high again this fiscal year, with about 20,500 unaccompanied children and 24,600 family units apprehended from October to the end of January.
Leahy and other Democratic lawmakers are pushing for legislation in both the House and the Senate that would require the government to provide counsel to children and other vulnerable individuals.
Lynch told the committee that the administration supports efforts from Congress "to strengthen the policies and laws that would enable us to have a lawyer for every individual." She also said that "in no way does the Department of Justice feel that children of that age, or even, frankly, children even older, can or should represent themselves individually."
She added that immigration judges "have an obligation to actually stop and put matters on hold if the litigant in front of them is not able to comprehend the matter."
Leahy asked why the Justice Department doesn't make it a policy that immigration proceedings cannot move forward for children until they have representation.
"I think you raise an excellent point and we may find ourselves there," Lynch said. "I think we're looking to find any various ways to support that and we're looking at various ways to get legal counsel appointed in every situation."
The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups are seeking a solution in the courts. They filed a class-action lawsuit in 2014, arguing that the government violated due process laws by failing to provide counsel for youths in immigration courts. Weil's deposition took place as part of that case.