Trump Picks Anti-Immigration Hard-Liner to Lead Refugee Bureau

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump announced plans to nominate a retired foreign service officer affiliated with an organization that critics call an anti-immigrant hate group to run the State Department bureau overseeing refugee protection and resettlement.

Ronald Mortensen, whose postings as a diplomat included Chad, Gabon and Australia, was tapped to be assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the White House said.

Mortensen, whose nomination is likely to spur a confirmation fight in the Senate, backed Trump’s presidential bid and is a vocal opponent of illegal immigration. Attention quickly turned to his current role as a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as a hate group in 2016 for its “repeated circulation of white nationalist and anti-Semitic writers.”

In a statement Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union called Mortensen an “anti-immigrant zealot” and said senators should examine his past statements “and animosity towards civil rights and civil liberties.”

But Mortensen also helped lead the U.S. Agency for International Development’s efforts to provide relief in Iraq and Syria, and he was among a team that won a humanitarian award for that work in 2017.

Read a QuickTake on why the U.S. immigration debate is so heated

Mortensen declined to comment when reached by phone on Friday. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the hate-group description is “a slur by a direct marketing organization that shouldn’t really be taken seriously.” He said in a phone interview that Mortensen “spent his whole life doing humanitarian assistance abroad. How many people have gone to Haiti after the earthquake and Iraq and Mali and Guinea-Bissau and Darfur?”

In several columns for the Center for Immigration Studies, which describes itself as “low-immigration, pro-immigrant,” Mortensen has sought to refute the idea that illegal immigrants are law-abiding, staked out his opposition to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and criticized religious leaders for assisting illegal immigrants.

“The country’s faith leaders have offered illegal aliens amnesty from their sins and crimes without any need to truly repent or to make restitution to the American citizens who have been severely damaged by their actions,” he wrote in a 2016 column.

Denounced McCain

Critics also cited a 2014 article by Mortensen on the center’s website accusing Republican Senator John McCain, a Vietnam war hero, of “dogged support for illegal aliens and open borders.” The headline on Mortensen’s piece: “McCain Rolls Out the Welcome Mat for ISIS on America’s Southern Border.”
Leading the refugees bureau would give Mortensen a major voice in policies because of its large budget -- more than $3.4 billion in 2016. The money was spent on global humanitarian assistance and refugee resettlement.

Refugee admissions to the U.S. have fallen drastically under the Trump administration. Citing State Department data, a Pew Research Center analysis said the U.S. admitted about 10,500 refugees from October through March, a quarter of the previous year’s figure.

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