Gehrke: Trump picked Utahn Ron Mortensen to be in charge of refugee programs? If this is a joke, it’s not funny.

Ron Mortensen is a nice enough guy who favors plaid shirts and ballcaps. Sometimes he’s clean shaven, sometimes he sports a wild mountain-man beard.

He’s pleasant enough, if you’re talking about his latest trip to Iraq or Africa or some other part of the world doing good work for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

But get him talking about immigration and things take a disturbing tone.

Mortensen is, without question, one of the most virulent opponents of illegal immigration in the state, if not the nation, with viewpoints so severe that they are decidedly in the fringe, even in a conservative state like Utah.

In no world would he be entrusted to run a program created to help displaced foreign people, desperate for help, settle in this country — except in TrumpWorld.

Last week, President Donald Trump nominated Mortensen to be his assistant secretary in charge of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. It’s a move that fits Trump’s pattern of surrounding himself with stridently anti-immigrant forces — legal and illegal — and it is undermining the United States’ position of leadership in the world.

Ron Mortensen, a co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration and a retired U.S. foreign service officer, published a critical account of LDS Church involvement in the issue of illegal immigration. File Photo

"I think people should be concerned about the Trump administration generally, and this seems to just be another piece in a very assertive policy change about who gets to come into this country and who gets to stay,” said Anne C. Richard, who held the post Mortensen has been nominated to during the Obama administration.

Since the Vietnam War, the United States has been far-and-away the leader in the world when it comes to resettling refugees. Now, at a time when global strife has displaced more people than at any point in our lifetime, the State Department has slashed the number of refugees welcomed to this country to just 45,000, and the U.S. is expected to fall behind Canada this year.

“I know he has experience working with refugees outside of the country. I don’t know about his experience with refugees inside the country,” said Paul Mero, who hired Mortensen when Mero was president of the conservative Sutherland Institute. “In fact, the only thing I really do know is that he’s very anti-immigration and anti-refugee.”

For years, as a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, Mortensen has thrown around flimsy claims about the pervasiveness of identity theft perpetrated by undocumented immigrants. He claims 80,000 Utah children have had their identities stolen and that three-fourths of undocumented immigrants “routinely” commit felonies.

“Clearly misleading or fabricated statistics that inflame the anti-immigrant passions seem to be his style, and I’m not sure how effective that will be in trying to solve problems at the national level,” said state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who has sparred with Mortensen as the senator sought to craft rational immigration legislation for the state.

One bill Bramble sponsored was a driving privilege card, so undocumented immigrants could get insurance and be identified when they’re stopped by police. Mortensen opposed that bill, but since Trump took office has encouraged immigration officials to use it to identify people for deportation.

He blasted Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2014 for being soft on border security, saying he “rolled out the welcome mat for ISIS.”

He tore into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2011 when the church — along with other faiths — signed on to The Utah Compact, which called for a federal solution to the immigration issue, compassionate immigration policies that keep families together and a recognition of immigration’s economic contribution.

For years, Mortensen has ranted against state Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, accusing her of being a foreign agent working secretly for the Mexican government to bring more undocumented Mexicans into the state.

In 2010, Mortensen opposed a bill by Escamilla to help cover the children of legal immigrants whose parents lose their insurance. If their kids are sick, Mortensen said, they should get help from family, seek charity care or go back home.

It’s not all that surprising, since Mortensen advocates for increased deportations of undocumented immigrants and so-called “Dreamers,” young people whose parents brought them to the United States illegally, back to countries they haven’t lived in since they were infants.

It is right in line with the Trump administration’s inhumane practice of taking young children away from their parents at the border.

“This appointment of Mortensen, along with their latest policy change to break up immigrant families, shows how utterly inhumane this administration is,” Escamilla said. “How is this America? What are we becoming?”

What ARE we becoming?

More important, what are we going to do about it?

“This is where Congress really has a role to ask him a lot of questions and ascertain what are his views on the job and also pin down more what the Trump administration policies are,” Richard said.

More than that, Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee — who were apparently not consulted by the White House about the nomination — should take the lead to make sure their Senate colleagues never confirm Mortensen.

If he is confirmed, it would be an embarrassment to our state and damaging to our nation’s status in the world — even if he is a nice enough guy.