A federal judge who is responsible for training other immigration judges recently argued that some preschoolers could simply defend themselves during a hearing if an attorney was not present. 

“I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds,” Judge Jack H. Weil said during a deposition last week. “It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.”

Weil’s comments came last week during a high-profile federal case in which the American Civil Liberties Union is arguing that federal law requires any indigent child, regardless of citizenship, to be entitled to representation under the U.S. Constitution.

 The ACLU attorney for the case, Ahilan Arulanantham, bristled at the judge’s comments. 

“This is the person in charge of training immigration judges about how to treat children?” Arulanantham asked The Washington Post. “And this is the witness the government puts forward to present their views as to how this is supposed to happen? That is horrifying.”

The controversy comes as the number of deportation orders for undocumented children has steadily risen over the last few years. Now, with backlogged courts, there is a growing debate on whether all undocumented children facing deportation should be entitled to taxpayer-funded lawyers.

Last year, nearly 21,000 unaccompanied children were caught at the Mexican border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Los Angeles Times reports that the number continues to grow. 

Weil, the assistant chief immigration judge for the Department of Justice, told the Washington Post, which first reported his deposition comments, that his statement about small children representing themselves does not “present an accurate assessment of my views on this topic” and were being “taken out of context.”

Arulanantham disagrees, saying, “He obviously meant what he said.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice told the Washington Post, “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 represent the views of (the Executive Office for Immigration Review) or the Department of Justice.”