Ronald Mortensen, anti-immigrant hardliner and ideologue, has been appointed by President Trump to helm the State Department’s Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). Like numerous other Trump administration nominees, Mortensen has repeatedly expressed views antithetical to the office he has been tapped to lead. He would be a catastrophic addition to the State Department team working on critical human rights issues.
If confirmed as PRM’s assistant secretary of state, Mortensen would assume responsibility for State Department offices tasked with protecting refugees and victims of conflict, engaging in multilateral conversations, negotiations, and partnerships with other governments about issues of migration and statelessness, and—in the Bureau’s own words—“supporting reproductive health and rights, voluntary family planning, women’s empowerment, development, and efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.” Mortensen is uniquely ill-suited to lead US government efforts on these crucial issues. In the words of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Mortensen’s record directly undermines the bureau’s core mission.”
Mortensen is currently a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a designated “anti-immigrant hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). According to SPLC, the group promotes nativist positions that further negative stereotypes of immigrants. Mortensen himself published an op-ed in The Hill reinforcing CIS’s fear-based policy positions. As statements by the ACLU and the SLPC make clear, the racist and anti-immigrant positions taken by CIS and Mortensen are at odds with the task he would be charged with carrying out.
The PRM Bureau plays a critical role in promoting global access to reproductive health services and, in the past, has been a key voice within the US government championing sexual and reproductive health and rights. Within the State Department, the Bureau is responsible for advancing US foreign policy goals around reproductive health and is also tasked with representing the US on the Executive Board of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)—where the US continues to hold a seat, despite the fact that the Trump administration withdrew funding from the agency over a year ago.
PRM also plays a leading role at the annual Commission on Population and Development (CPD), a valuable forum to monitor progress on the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, of which sexual and reproductive health is a central component. At the 2018 CPD, the US proved a roadblock in efforts to reach an outcome as Trump administration officials took hardline positions on both issues of sexual and reproductive rights and discussions of international migration. Traditionally, the US delegation to the CPD is led by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration—meaning, if confirmed, Mortensen would assume responsibility for the annual UN meeting. That would bode poorly for the future of constructive US engagement in this important space.
As the head of PRM, Mortensen would also be responsible for representing the United States in international negotiations on migration. This is yet another area where the Trump administration is putting the US increasingly at odds with global consensus. In December 2017, then secretary of state Rex Tillerson announced the US would be withdrawing from the UN-led process of developing a Global Compact on Migration, arguing the negotiation “could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders.” Global conversations on the compact continued, without the US, into 2018, in recognition of the fact that there are nearly 260 million people currently living outside their countries of origin and risky migration routes are ripe for exploitation and human rights violations, particularly of women and girls who are 50 percent of the refugee population.
If confirmed, Mortensen would join a growing list of anti-immigrant ideologues in prominent positions in the Trump administration. Stephen Miller, the far-right activist credited as the architect of the so-called “travel ban” policy, remains in place as a senior policy advisor at the White House. A close Miller ally and fellow immigration hardliner, Andrew Veprek, is already in place as the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau. As Anne Richard, herself a former assistant secretary of state, wrote in the New York Times, the selection of Mortensen is “part of a campaign to change America’s long tradition of welcoming refugees and immigrants and offering sanctuary to the persecuted.” In light of the abusive US border policies that have come to light in recent weeks, including the policy of separating children from their families, the appointment of Mortensen represents yet another step away from fundamental standards of human rights.
The PRM Bureau does critical work around the world. From issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights, on which IWHC works closely, to its vital humanitarian work around refugee and migrant protection, PRM needs a leader with a commitment to human rights, international law, and respect for global diversity. It is clear that Ronald Mortensen is not that leader. IWHC urges the Senate to reject his nomination.
Photo: UN Women staff and partners hold a community meeting for women at the Gado-Badzere refugee camp in Cameroon. (UN Women / Ryan Brown)