The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has settled a whistleblower retaliation claim brought by a former paralegal, Allison Hrabar (pronounced RAY-bar), who was let go after she went to a restaurant to confront Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about child separations. Per the terms of the agreement, the DOJ paid $55,000 for Hrabar’s back wages, compensation and attorney’s fees.
“As a journalist in 2014, I toured a border detention facility holding unaccompanied children in Nogales, Arizona, and saw the inhumane conditions there,” Hrabar said, “so when I learned Secretary Nielsen was eating nearby, I knew that I had to tell her about the harm caused by her child separation policy. It cost me my job, but it was the right thing to do.”
Hrabar retained Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch (KCNF) to file a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC).
“The Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) protects federal employees when they disclose any violation of the law,” said her attorney, Richard Renner. “Hrabar has a reasonable basis to believe that Secretary Nielsen’s child separation policy violated the U.S. Constitution and created a danger to public health and safety.”
DOJ hired Hrabar as a paralegal in its antitrust division in 2016. “My job was to protect American consumers from abuse by businesses,” Hrabar explained. “Those cases meant a lot to me: I spent hours in a windowless office to make sure monopolies couldn’t take over our economy.” DOJ awarded Hrabar with stellar performance reviews and a promotion. In her off-duty time, she volunteered with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
While at home after work on June 19, 2018, Hrabar received a text saying, “DHS Secretary Nielsen is having dinner at MXDC. Can we get like 5–10 people there to crash?” The previous day, Secretary Nielsen had insisted that family separation was “not a policy” and that it was “not possible as a matter of law to detain and remove whole family units who arrive illegally in the United States.” Aware that the Trump Administration started taking hundreds of children from their parents upon arrival at the U.S. border since October 2017 and holding them in camps, Hrabar joined the protest.
After the protest, Hrabar’s name and face were splashed across Reddit and cable news. She and her family received threatening emails, social media messages and voicemails.
Hrabar explained her reasons for attending the protest:
“I had seen firsthand the danger, abuse, mismanagement, and violations of Due Process that resulted from unaccompanied children being kept in ICE facilities. It was important for me to tell Nielsen, and the public, that children who are detained by ICE are kept away from their families, not given sufficient food or shelter, and are kept in overcrowded and abusive environments. They are subject to long-term trauma and psychological harm. They are denied counsel and Due Process. Subjecting children to these conditions was intended to scare away other refugees from approaching the United States. ICE did not care about treating these children well, which is why the agency, overseen by Nielsen, did not have a plan to reunite children separated from their families at the border. If I didn’t speak up, more children would be harmed in facilities like the one I saw.”
Promptly after the protest, DOJ officials launched an investigation. Hrabar cooperated. She provided copies of her off-duty text messages. The investigation ended with no finding of any misconduct by Hrabar and she received no formal discipline.
The day after Hrabar’s June 19, 2018, protest, DHS claimed that it ended the family separation policy, although subsequent reporting revealed that the Trump Administration secretly continued separating hundreds more children without a plan to ever reunify them with their parents. Activists staged similar protests at restaurants against Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt and Senator Ted Cruz. After confronting Nielsen, DSA members, including Hrabar, continued to protest executives they believe make a profit by taking ICE contracts and abusing immigrants.
On September 18, 2018, Hrabar learned that Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, a Trump Administration political appointee and Hrabar’s fourth-level supervisor, was “troubled” by what she had done and decided not to renew her term of employment, effectively firing her.
“I am so happy to recover the pay I lost after being fired,” said Hrabar, who is now a law student at New York University. “I appreciate the support I had from friends and allies, the representation I had from KCNF, and the attention the OSC gave to my case. I hope this victory protects other employees from retaliation in the future.”
Other coverage of Hrabar’s protest can be found at: