The acting attorney general in the Biden administration, a longtime career official named Monty Wilkinson, participated in a controversial decision in 2017 to remove a Texas Department of Justice (DoJ) attorney who had raised concerns about the separation of migrant children from their parents .
Guardian emails show that Wilkinson, who is expected to serve as acting attorney general until Judge Merrick Garland is officially confirmed by the Senate, has been working with another longtime career officer, Iris Lan, to resolve complaints about Joshua Stern, to examine a prosecutor, colleagues said he was “disturbed” by the Trump administration’s separation policies.
The policy ultimately resulted in the separation of around 1,550 children from their parents, hundreds of whom have not yet been reunited, despite Joe Biden saying he would make this one of his top priorities.
Stern, no longer with the DoJ, was eventually removed from his position as a temporary detailee two weeks after senior officials in Texas raised concerns about him to Washington DC officials, including Wilkinson.
Wilkinson, whom Biden had chosen as acting attorney general pending confirmation from Garland, oversaw the Department of Justice’s human resources, security planning, and library prior to being named attorney general.
A recent report in the New York Times suggested that Wilkinson was a trusted long-time official and that his “low profile” almost guaranteed he was not implicated in any of the myriad of scandals the Justice Department under Donald Trump and the former Attorney defined General Bill Barr.
However, a report released by the Guardian in September 2020 found that Wilkinson was one of several career officials investigating complaints that ultimately resulted in Stern’s removal from the western district of Texas in 2017.
The report focused on the role a senior Justice Department official, Iris Lan, played in investigating these complaints. Lan had been nominated for a lifelong federal judge, but the nomination was never accepted in the Senate after a number of immigrant rights groups raised concerns about Lan after the Guardian article was published.
It is not clear whether Wilkinson or Lan privately endorsed or criticized the government’s child segregation policies upon hearing of Stern’s concerns.
At the time of the controversy, Wilkinson was serving as director of the executive office for US attorneys, a role he had taken on from Eric Holder, former attorney general for Bill Clinton.
Emails from the Guardian show that a DoJ official in Texas named Jose Gonzalez sent a memo to then-acting US attorney for the western district, Richard Durbin, in September 2017, setting out concerns about Stern, including complaints that Stern was “particularly” disturbed “by cases in which defendants could not find their children.
The western El Paso district at the time was involved in a pilot program to prosecute migrants who entered the country illegally, which in turn resulted in people being separated from their children, sometimes indefinitely.
The policy was later extended to all border states, but ended after an outcry in Congress and the press when stories of the separation of migrant children emerged.
Stern had been sent to Texas to help cope with a significant influx of migrants. However, emails show that he was deeply concerned and alarmed about the separated children and told prosecutors that the prosecuted parents “have often fled violence in their home countries”.
He also told supervisors in Texas that he had reached out to agencies to try to find missing children. The memo of Stern’s insubordination was forwarded to Lan by Durbin, who told Lan he did not believe Stern was “fully committed to the program.” Durbin wanted to release Stern from the Detailee program early.
Lan, in turn, said she wasn’t sure about normal protocol and said she wanted to share the memo with Wilkinson to get his “shot” before “we move on.” Wilkinson then responded to Lan and Durbin, saying that he and Durbin had spoken and that Durbin would send more “specific examples”.
Stern received a resignation letter that ended his posting on September 20, 2017, two weeks after first concerns were raised against Lan and later against Wilkinson.
Stern did not respond to questions from the Guardian.
A DoJ spokesman said in a statement: “The department cannot comment on certain personnel matters. Regarding the process for detail assignments of components to US law firms, the decision as to whether or not to proceed with a detail is between the borrowing and receiving components. EOUSA plays an administrative role in the related formalities, but does not make decisions about orders. “
There was no further comment on who made the decision.
A DoJ spokeswoman under the Trump administration responded to questions about the previous Guardian article on the matter that Lan received the memo through Stern because of her role as liaison with U.S. attorneys and did not attend to human resources issues.
“She forwarded it, consistent with her role,” she said.
A recent report by the Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Justice examined in depth the role of some of the Department’s officials in Trump’s separation policy.
The division management knew the guidelines would result in children being separated from their families and that former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions “had shown a poor understanding of the legal requirements for the care and custody of separated children.”
“We concluded that the department’s single-minded focus on increasing immigration law enforcement has been at the expense of careful and appropriate weighing of the effects of family unit law enforcement and child separation,” the report said.