President Donald Trump’s choice of an anti-immigration hard-liner to lead a State Department division overseeing refugees has alarmed top Democratic lawmakers as well as human rights activists.
The White House announced this week that Trump had nominated Ronald Mortensen, a retired foreign service officer with humanitarian assistance experience, to serve as the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. The bureau has been a quiet conflict zone as Trump and his aides have tried to dramatically scale back refugee admissions to the United States.
Mortensen is listed as a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies. The center, founded in 1985, is known for advocating severe restrictions on immigration to the United States. It bills itself as an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization that provides data and analysis to policymakers.
The left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the center a hate group for a range of reasons, including that it “has routinely disseminated the works of white nationalist writers.” Other critics say the center’s research is shoddy and misleading.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed reservations about the nomination on Friday, a stance likely to be echoed by other Democrats in the Senate confirmation process.
“I am deeply concerned with Mr. Mortensen’s deep involvement with some of our nation’s most anti-immigrant organizations, and I find some of his past statements not only offensive and inaccurate but fundamentally in contradiction of American values and history,” Menendez said in a statement.
Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, was even harsher in his assessment of the nominee.
“Mr. Mortensen’s racist, vile and disparaging comments against immigrants and refugees disqualify him from serving our government in any capacity,” he said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League also weighed in.
“Mr. Mortensen’s role at CIS, an organization with disturbing longstanding ties to racists, and his past extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric are disqualifying,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the ADL, said in a statement. “He is simply unsuited to head a bureau whose charge it is to provide protection to refugees around the world escaping persecution.”
The ACLU pointed out that Mortensen had spoken out against legislation designed to protect so-called Dreamers —undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors.
“Mortensen’s previous statements and animosity toward civil rights and civil liberties are deeply concerning and should be raised by senators,” the ACLU’s Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns, added in a statement.
In one item posted on the center’s website, for instance, Mortensen bemoans the fact that a Dreamer has to be convicted of a crime before being deemed ineligible for legal protection. “This means that Dreamer gang-bangers, Dreamer identity thieves, Dreamer sexual predators, Dreamers who haven’t paid income taxes, and Dreamers committing a wide range of other crimes all qualify for DACA status as long as they haven’t been convicted of their crimes,” he wrote.
Mortensen has also criticized several Republican lawmakers for being, in his opinion, too soft on immigration. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Mortensen wrote in 2015, is “either exceptionally gullible or just plain dishonest.” Arizona Sen. John McCain’s “support for illegal aliens and open borders,” he wrote in 2014, “has left the United States vulnerable to terrorists.”
The White House, in its announcement of Mortensen’s nomination, did not mention his affiliation with CIS. Rather, it emphasized his history of development and aid work, as well as his diplomatic background.
It noted that Mortensen, an Air Force veteran from Utah, has worked with both the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and that he had won awards for his efforts.
“He has worked on humanitarian responses that saved lives and alleviated the suffering of millions of people in Iraq, Syria, Mali, Libya, Haiti, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many other countries in West Africa,” the White House said.
Mortensen could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.
Refugees, who are often fleeing war or political persecution in their homelands, are generally categorized separately from other legal immigrants to the United States. Refugees must undergo security and other types of background checks lasting months, sometimes years, before being admitted to the United States — more scrutiny than any other group permitted on U.S. soil, advocates say.
Trump has made no secret of his hostility toward immigrants, in particular undocumented immigrants and refugees. He has blamed them for crime and alleged they could be terrorists trying to reach the U.S.
Trump’s rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign coincided with terrorist attacks in Europe, which was also grappling with a wave of Syrian refugees at the same time. Trump’s hard-line approach helped destroy long-standing bipartisan U.S. support for refugees.
Now Republican lawmakers have largely turned against the U.S. refugee resettlement program, while Democrats have been trying to protect it.