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Opposition growing to Utahn's appointment as an assistant secretary of state

FILE - Ronald Mortensen at his home in Bountiful, Utah, Wednesday, July 14, 2010. Mortensen is an advocate protecting people from identity theft by illegal immigrants.
FILE - Ronald Mortensen at his home in Bountiful, Utah, Wednesday, July 14, 2010. Mortensen is an advocate protecting people from identity theft by illegal immigrants.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahn Ron Mortensen's nomination by President Donald Trump to serve as an assistant secretary of state is drawing opposition in the Senate because of his anti-immigration stands, including from a key Republican.

"This nominee will not have my support," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., tweeted Wednesday, linking to a recent Politico story about top Democratic lawmakers and human rights activists being alarmed about the president's pick to oversee refugees.

Flake is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considering Mortensen's nomination, announced last week. Flake's no vote means at least one Democrat will have to back Mortensen for him to be confirmed by the Senate.

Mortensen, who holds a doctorate degree from the University of Utah, would be over the U.S. State Department's bureau for population, refugees and migration, if he wins Senate approval.

The White House described Mortensen, who regularly lobbies Utah lawmakers on immigration and identity theft, as a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who has worked the past 15 years on disaster relief in countries around the world.

Not mentioned is that as a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, Mortensen has posted extensively since 2009 to the website of the center, labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for "circulating racist writers."

Mortensen has stated 8 million of the people in the country illegally "could be deported for the crimes that they commit" and that they "routinely commit multiple felonies by using fraudulent documents to get jobs."

He also listed Flake among "illegal alien crime deniers" on the website and has been critical of the positions taken on immigration by other Senate Republicans, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was criticized in a 2016 post for endorsing "Utah's pro-illegal alien, sanctuary state governor, Gary Herbert, for re-election," noting Herbert is "a strong proponent of the pro-illegal alien Utah Compact."

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, said that he was "deeply concerned with Mr. Mortensen's deep involvement with some of our nation's most anti-immigrant organizations."

In the same statement issued Friday, Menendez said he finds some of Mortensen's "past statements not only offensive and inaccurate but fundamentally in contradiction of American values and history."

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League have also taken issue with the nomination.

Mortensen had no comment Wednesday on Flake's tweet.

He said after the White House made his nomination public Friday that "as the president's nominee, I respect the Senate's role in reviewing my nomination and won't have any comments at this time."

Neither of Utah's senators were ready to back Mortensen's nomination Wednesday.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is undecided about how he'll vote, his communications director, Conn Carroll, said.

But Carroll said in a statement that Lee "has met Mr. Mortensen and was impressed with his qualifications. He looks forward to learning more about him at his confirmation hearing."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, hasn't taken a position on Mortensen, his deputy chief of staff, Matt Whitlock, said. Hatch, who is retiring after 42 years in the Senate, is not a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Whitlock said the full Senate is "a ways away" from a floor vote.

In a statement, Whitlock said that "Hatch has worked well with this particular office in the State Department for decades, as hundreds of immigrant and refugee families in Utah can attest, and will work to ensure the office continues to serve Utah values well. Those values include a strong focus on ensuring families can stay together within the framework of the law.”

Mortensen's nomination has surfaced as an issue in the upcoming GOP primary races.

Mitt Romney, who is running to be the Republican nominee in the race for Hatch's Senate seat against Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Wednesday he knows Mortensen from the 2002 Winter Games.

Romney, who led the Olympics in Salt Lake City, said Mortensen was responsible for some of the personnel management and "so far as I know, he did a fine job in that role but that was obviously a long time ago."

He said they have not spoken since, but "what I have read in the media about his statements gives me great concern and I would not be ready to either sign on or say no," without more information about Mortensen's statements and beliefs.

"That would be true of anyone who was coming before the Senate for confirmation," Romney said.

He said what he's heard that's concerning about Mortensen's statements include "comments about the criminal proclivity of illegal immigrants" that appear to be distorted.

Romney, who Trump considered for secretary of state at the start of his term, said he would not "suggest how the president makes his appointments."

But he said he hopes "the person who fills the responsiblity for our nation's immigration program welcomes legal immigration and is committed at the same time to stopping the flow of illegal immigration."

Kennedy had no comment on Mortensen's nomination, his campaign said.

The Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, said she would vote against Mortensen's nomination if she were in the Senate.

"Clearly, Mortensen is the wrong person for this sensitive position and his placement would heighten the division over immigration rather than support good policy," Wilson said.

The candidates in the GOP primary for the 3rd Congressional District seat, Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, and former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, were divided over the issueduring Tuesday's debate.

Herrod said he supports Trump's nomination, but Curtis said that while he doesn't know Mortensen well, "there is no way this congressman will ever vote for a racist to fill that position."