Dana Sabraw
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw / Photo courtesy of Southern District of California

In June, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made a strange declaration on Twitter. The Trump administration, she wrote, did not have a policy of separating parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Meanwhile, news outlets like ProPublica were posting excruciating audio of children being dragged from their families.

It was amid that chaotic, confusing and emotionally wrought backdrop that Judge Dana Sabraw weighed in on an existing case, filed before the government’s zero-tolerance policy had officially begun, challenging the government’s practice of separating families.

The ACLU had filed the lawsuit in February, alleging that an asylum-seeking woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in November 2017, had been unjustly and unnecessarily separated from her then 6-year-old daughter.

As the federal government drastically increased separations after its zero-tolerance policy went into effect and it began to criminally prosecute parents who had crossed between ports of entry with their children, the case garnered national attention.

Sabraw, who is neither an immigration advocate nor a member of the Trump administration, made it clear: Family separations were happening, and they were both legally improper and immoral.

The allegations in the lawsuit “sufficiently describe government conduct that arbitrarily tears at the sacred bond between parent and child. … Such conduct, if true, as it is assumed to be on the present motion, is brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency,” Sabraw wrote in an order halting the separations.

Sabraw’s order – a measured but forceful rebuke from a third party – confirmed to an outraged nation that in denying that the separations were happening, or casting them as beneficial and necessary, the administration was essentially gaslighting its citizens.

Sabraw then oversaw a months-long process to reunite thousands of children with their parents. At times, he praised the administration for its efforts. Some family separations, however, have still taken place in cases where the government officials alleged the parent has a criminal history, if they believe the child is not related to the adult or if there are other safety or health issues – situations that were not included in Sabraw’s order.

Sabraw was nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate in 2003. Before that he was a Superior Court judge in San Diego. He is married to San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan.

Friends and attorneys described him to the Union-Tribune as a brilliant and even-handed jurist who’s willing to tackle complex legal issues. He certainly did that this year, with the eyes of the nation watching.

This is part of our 2018 Voice of the Year list, profiling the people who kick-started San Diego’s biggest civic discussions over the past year.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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