by Paul Mero

The Trump Administration has placed the name of Utah’s Ron Mortensen before the United States Senate as the administration’s nominee as the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration – and senators, especially Utah’s senators, should oppose Mortensen’s confirmation.

The Bureau of PRM was created to “provide protection, ease suffering, and resolve the plight of persecuted and uprooted people around the world on behalf of the American people….” PRM “provides aid and sustainable solutions for refugees, victims of conflict and stateless people around the world, through repatriation, local integration, and resettlement in the United States. PRM also promotes the United States’ population and migration policies.”

Those are the State Department activities that Ron Mortensen would oversee as an assistant secretary. The main questions for senators asked to confirm his nomination are two-fold. First, is Mortensen qualified for the position? And, second, is he the right fit? Utah’s senators have an additional burden to answer to – Is Ron Mortensen Utah’s face for population, refugees and migration issues?

I take a small piece of responsibility for this moment. After Mortensen retired from the Foreign Service and looked to stay in Utah permanently to focus on family matters, I hired him in 2004 as a policy analyst at Sutherland Institute. During the hiring process, he asked me if he could be allowed two weeks a year to volunteer with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He enjoyed traveling overseas, away from home, to help refugees mostly in the Middle East and Northern Africa. You bet, I told him, and he did work with USAID over the next two years he was with Sutherland.

Is Mortensen qualified to become the assistant secretary for PRM? He certainly is familiar with federal refugee programs outside of the United States. He has been there, done that and, by all accounts, did it well. But Mortensen has not been nominated to work ground crews in Chad. He has been nominated as an assistant secretary of State to run the whole show at PRM – and, in that regard, Mortensen is not qualified.

As good as a general contractor is to build Utah roads, he is far from the engineers who design those roads and instruct workers how to build them. An assistant secretary of state is an engineer, not a construction worker.

The previous seven assistant secretaries of PRM have been qualified. Among them, a professor at Georgetown University, a special assistant to the president on the National Security Council, legal counsel for the Department of State, an ambassador to the United Nations, an assistant secretary general at the United Nations, an actual director at USAID, and a two-time assistant secretary of State.

Mortensen was a Foreign Service officer for 20 years. He is seen by his main supporter as a “respected” Fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies – which is like being the esteemed guest at a white nationalist luncheon in Charlottesville, Virginia, before a Trump rally. In Mortensen’s defense, a friend and colleague of his, wrote, “Dr. Mortensen has every credential to qualify him for this esteemed appointment. He has done more to alleviate the suffering of world refugees than all of the bleeding-heart liberals, whiny RINO’s, and soft-socialists combined in the state of Utah.” These are Mortensen’s credentials – all of them.

Is Mortensen the right fit for the job? If your only standard is that he was nominated, then yes. If you insist on respecting Trump’s presidential discretion, regardless of Mortensen’s qualifications or nativist worldview, then certainly. But any discerning senator who actually cares about PRM policies would be hard pressed to vote yes. Conservative Republican Senator Jeff Flake already has said, “This nominee will not have my support.”

Lastly, Utah’s senators should oppose Mortensen’s confirmation because he does not represent the face of Utah on issues of refugees and immigration. He sees the resettlement refugee program generally and every undocumented immigrant as a potential terrorist threat and de facto criminal, respectively. From first-hand knowledge, Mortensen hated Utah’s immigration law, refused to negotiate even the parts of the law he supported, accused a Hispanic Utah legislator of being a foreign agent of the Mexican government and has called several supporters of the Utah law “traitors” to this nation.

Again, I do not doubt Mortensen’s qualifications to physically hand out food and water to struggling refugees overseas. But there is no doubt in my mind Mortensen is unqualified to actually run an entire federal agency. Yes, the Trump presidency has lowered the bar for federal service. But the bar for qualified service should not be so low as to be unseen.

For my part in opposing Mortensen’s confirmation, I have started an online petition to let our Utah senators know how we feel.

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