Meet the lawyer who didn’t want to promise a toothbrush to migrant children


United States Justice Department lawyer Sarah Fabian has received death threats after arguing products like soap, a toothbrush and blankets may not be essential to ensuring 'safe and sanitary' conditions for migrant children while in Border Patrol custody.

After arguing that products like soap and a toothbrush may not be essential for migrant children in Border Patrol custody, US Justice Department lawyer Sarah Fabian has received death threats. 

On Twitter, someone posted her work phone number, and someone else announced that her “room in hell is ready.” Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate, said she “needs to be fired and prevented from ever holding another government job.”

Her name is Sarah B. Fabian. She is a Justice Department lawyer who has been a somewhat anonymous foot soldier in the Trump administration’s legal battles over immigration.

Until last week, that is, when a courtroom video went viral of Ms Fabian suggesting that the federal government may not be required to provide soap, toothbrushes or beds for detained migrant children.

Trump administrator
Sarah Fabian was questioned by federal judges about the Trump administration not providing soap or toothbrushes for migrant children.

Ms Fabian appeared before the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, in a case about how the federal government is legally obligated to treat migrant children who are in custody.

At the hearing, Ms Fabian tried to parse the meaning of “safe and sanitary” conditions, the standard established by a settlement agreement that determines the government’s handling of migrant children who are being held in detention.

“It’s within everybody’s common understanding that if you don’t have a toothbrush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, that’s not ‘safe and sanitary,’ ” said Judge A. Wallace Tashima of the 9th Circuit, a former marine who was imprisoned as a child in a Japanese-American internment camp in Arizona during World War II. “Wouldn’t everybody agree to that? Do you agree with that?”

“Well, I think it’s — I think those are — there’s fair reason to find that those things may be part of ‘safe and sanitary,’ ” Ms Fabian replied.

“Not ‘may be,’ ” Mr Tashima said. “ ‘Are’ a part. Why do you say, ‘may be’? You mean there’s circumstances when a person doesn’t need to have a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap for days?”

“Well, I think, in CBP custody, it’s frequently intended to be much shorter term,” Ms Fabian replied, referring to the Customs and Border Protection agency. “So it may be that for a shorter-term stay in CBP custody that some of those things may not be required.”

An edited, four-minute video of Ms Fabian’s exchange with the judges posted by NowThis News on Twitter has been viewed more than 20 million times.

Ms Fabian stopped short of directly stating that the government did not have to provide toothbrushes, soap and beds to migrant children. But her attempts to dance around the subject, and her apparent inability to clarify for the judges just what she was arguing, helped turn Ms Fabian into the public face of the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant children at the border.

“Don’t let her be anonymous,” one Twitter commenter posted. “Whenever anyone searches her name for the rest of her life, let them discover that Sarah Fabian doesn’t believe children need blankets, soap or toothbrushes.”

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department confirmed that Ms Fabian has received death threats but did not respond to requests for an interview.

Of course, viral videos and sudden social-media infamy rarely tell the whole story.

Ms Fabian, 43, has been a largely behind-the-scenes player in defending the Trump administration’s immigration policies in court. A lawyer for the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation, she has argued in courts across the country in federal immigration cases. In 2016 in Arizona, Ms Fabian defended the government in a lawsuit challenging conditions in Border Patrol detention centres in the agency’s Tucson sector.

US migrants
This May 29, 2019 file photo released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shows some of 1,036 migrants who crossed the US-Mexico border in El Paso.

She grew up in Dover, Massachusetts, and played soccer at Amherst College, from which she graduated in 1998 before attending law school at George Washington University in Washington, DC. After working at the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, she was hired by the Justice Department under the Obama administration and has been a government lawyer since at least 2009.

She appears to be a registered Democrat, at least according to her July 2017 voter registration with the state of Colorado, which is still active.

Ms Fabian made headlines at least once before. Last summer, as the courtroom drama between the Trump administration and immigrant advocates, was at its height over the issue of reuniting migrant families who had been separated at the border, Ms Fabian pleaded that she was unavailable for a hearing when a judge inquired about setting it over the weekend.

Ms Fabian cited a personal hardship, according to a transcript posted by NBC News. “I have dog-sitting responsibilities,” she said and needed to return home over the weekend.

“Trump administration lawyer goes dog-sitting rather than work over the weekend to reunite immigrant parents and kids,” The New York Daily News proclaimed.

By Manny Fernandez © 2019 The New York Times

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