Washington • Utah’s Republican senators said Friday they were unaware President Donald Trump was going to nominate a Utahn known for his anti-illegal immigration rhetoric to a top State Department job, and critics said Ronald Mortensen is a poor choice to oversee refugee and migration issues.
Trump on Thursday selected Mortensen — a former career foreign service officer who has been a vocal critic of immigrants and argues they commit crimes at a high rate — to be the assistant secretary of state over population, refugees and migration. The Senate must confirm Mortensen to the post.
Sen. Mike Lee’s office said it didn’t know the nomination was coming but signaled the senator may support Mortensen.
“Sen. Lee has met Mr. Mortensen and was impressed with his qualifications,” Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said. “He looks forward to learning more about him at his confirmation hearing.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, meanwhile, wouldn’t say whether he’d back Mortensen and steered clear of mentioning him when asked about the nomination.
“Sen. Hatch has worked well with this particular office in the State Department for decades, as hundreds of immigrant and refugee families in Utah can attest, and will work to ensure the office continues to serve Utah values well,” Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said. “Those values include a strong focus on ensuring families can stay together within the framework of the law.”
It’s common tradition, though not always followed, for the White House to consult senators about potential nominees from their states. For judicial nominees, a home-state senator can usually block a nominee he or she doesn’t agree with under Senate norms.
The White House on Friday touted Mortensen’s nomination, noting his work with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s foreign disaster program and how he previously served as a diplomat in France, Australia, Canada, Gabon, Mauritania and Chad.
“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 in a statement.
The White House didn’t respond to a question about Mortensen’s past statements about immigrants. The Bountiful resident, who backed Trump in the 2016 election, is a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, where he has posted columns about immigrants stealing identities and opposed federal protection for children brought to the United States by their parents.
He said that President Barack Obama’s action to allow young immigrants to stay in the country rewarded “illegal aliens … for destroying the futures of innocent American children.”
The Center for Immigration Studies is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which on Friday said Mortensen’s nomination is an outrage and “another shameful example of President Trump reaching into the ranks of far-right extremist groups to fill powerful positions in his administration.”
“The Center for Immigration Studies is well known for producing shoddy research that demonizes immigrants with falsehoods,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “While he’s been there, Mortensen has played a role in exaggerating — against all evidence — a link between immigration and crime.
“This nomination, once again, shows that extremist groups have a direct line to federal power in the Trump administration,” Beirich continued. “Mortensen’s nomination should be opposed.”
Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns at the American Civil Liberties Union, said Friday that Mortensen is an “anti-immigrant zealot” and cannot fairly manage the U.S. refugee resettlement program.
“The ACLU does not oppose or endorse nominations, but Mortensen’s previous statements and animosity towards civil rights and civil liberties are deeply concerning and should be raised by senators,” Praeli said. “In considering this nomination, all senators must stand up for the core principle that the Constitution protects immigrants.”
The Anti-Defamation League said Mortensen’s nomination is “deeply troubling.”
“Mr. Mortensen’s role at CIS, an organization with disturbing long-standing ties to racists and his past extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric are disqualifying,” said the league’s CEO and national director, Jonathan Greenblatt. “He is simply unsuited to head a bureau whose charge it is to provide protection to refugees around the world escaping persecution.”
Mortensen referred questions about his nomination to the State Department, and the State Department referred questions to the White House.