Civil rights groups are calling on senators to reject President Donald Trump’s intention to put a former foreign service officer who has harshly criticized immigrants — along with U.S. religious leaders and key GOP lawmakers — into a State Department role overseeing refugees and migrants.
The White House announced its intention to nominate Ronald Mortensen to be assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration on Friday afternoon, as much of Washington and the country was starting a holiday weekend. But several influential immigration advocacy groups noticed — and quickly urged the Senate to block the nomination.
In the announcing statement, the White House noted Mortensen’s 15 years working with U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance; his postings in a list of countries, including Iraq, Chad, Mauritania and Australia; and several State Department and USAID awards.
“He speaks French,” the statement said.
The White House did not address his tough words for those who want to enter the United States, Mormon and other religious leaders, and several Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee members — enough to sink his nomination if they all voted against.
Mortensen has for a few years crafted posts for the Center for Immigration Studies, which states on its website that it warns about “the social, economic, environmental, security, and fiscal consequences of legal and illegal immigration into the United States.”
He wrote a September 2014 post for the hard-line organization titled “McCain Rolls Out the Welcome Mat for ISIS on America’s Southern Border.” In that post, Mortensen accused Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of being an Islamic State “collaborator.”
“While assertions that ISIS is pre-positioning or has already crossed the southern border may be challenged, what is certain is that McCain has provided ISIS with unfettered access to the United States for both its personnel and their weapons of death and destruction,” the expected nominee wrote. “Should ISIS or some other terrorist group take advantage of McCain’s welcome mat, he will only have himself to blame as he goes in the eyes of many from war hero to collaborator.”
With McCain in poor health, that harsh critique is sure to come up in his confirmation hearing. How he answers questions about a longtime senator and war hero respected by members of both parties could help seal his fate.
House Democratic Conference Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York slammed what he called Mortensen’s “racist, vile, and disparaging comments against immigrants and refugees.” In a statement, he called the nomination “another clear demonstration from President Trump that he is intent on advancing an agenda completely contrary to America’s values.”
In a March 2015 post, Mortensen called out GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, writing that the lawmaker “is either exceptionally gullible or just plain dishonest.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina “had no problem getting him to be the poster boy for amnesty,” Mortensen wrote. “Rubio’s failure to understand that he was being played and his inability to recognize that what he was selling was amnesty.”
He also has slammed Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Foreign Relations chairman who will oversee his confirmation hearing. Differing from other harsh critiques, Mortensen’s words for Corker were policy-based, focused on an amendment he co-sponsored to a 2013 immigration bill that passed the Senate but died in the House.
Mortensen wrote that if Corker and its other advocates “were serious about limiting welfare benefits, they would require that employers pay [some immigrants] a wage sufficient to put them above the qualifying level for these welfare programs. And they would require that employers cover all medical costs for their [Registered Provisional Immigrant program] employees.”
Another Foreign Relations member who might prove a problem to the nomination is retiring Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, who on Sunday would not rule out a 2020 primary bid to wrestle the party’s presidential nomination from Trump. Mortensen once accused Flake of wanting “illegal aliens who commit identity theft and other serious crimes that do real harm to their American victims to be able to stay in the United States.”
The likely nominee also has been critical of other senior Republican members, including Graham and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, whom he dubbed a “weak-kneed John Boehner,” referring to the Ohio Republican who preceded him as House speaker.
Mortensen, who is from Utah, has also penned critical pieces about Mormon leaders, which will likely rankle both Republican and Democratic members.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert were on the receiving end of a March 2016 CIS post crafted by Mortensen that said Herbert “fully supports the Mormon Church’s pro-illegal immigration efforts to make Utah a sanctuary state.”
“The Mormon Church baptizes illegal aliens, gives males the Mormon priesthood, and allows illegal aliens to attend Mormon temples in spite of their illegal status and the fact that 75 percent of illegal aliens commit multiple felonies — forgery, Social Security fraud, child identity theft, perjury on I-9 forms, etc., in order to get jobs with Utah’s illegal-alien-friendly employers,” he wrote.
The White House and spokespersons for several senior Foreign Relations members all did not respond to requests for comment. But civil rights organizations voiced their opposition.
“Mortensen’s previous statements and animosity towards civil rights and civil liberties are deeply concerning and should be raised by senators,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement, though it does not endorse or actively oppose any nominee.
“In considering this nomination, all senators must stand up for the core principle that the Constitution protects immigrants,” said Lorella Praeli, the ACLU’s director of immigration policy and campaigns.
The Southern Poverty Law Center called the nomination “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.”
In a statement calling on senators to sink the nomination, SPLC dubbed the Center for Immigration Studies “a nativist hate group,” alleging the White House is eager to hand its staff “an influential role shaping immigration policy.”
Correction | An earlier version of this story misstated Ronald Mortensen’s first name, Ted Cruz’s home state and the name of the Center for Immigration Studies.
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