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The seal of the United States Department of State is seen Jan. 26 in Washington, D.C. Photo by REUTERS/Joshua Roberts.

McCain, Coons urge Trump to withdraw State Department nominee over stance on immigrants

WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons called on President Donald Trump’s administration Tuesday to withdraw its nominee for a key State Department position over his “lack of empathy” for immigrants. The appeal comes as the president faces mushrooming outrage over treatment of migrant families at the border.

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the pair wrote that Ronald Mortensen, Trump’s nominee for assistant secretary of state for Population, Refugees and Migration, “has spread misinformation about immigrants.” They said they strongly oppose his nomination, accusing Mortensen of displaying “a lack of empathy for innocent men, women, and children fleeing violence and oppression.”

“We are deeply concerned about the possibility of a virulent opponent of immigration serving as the United States’ senior diplomat for migration and refugee policies,” the senators wrote in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.

Mortensen, a retired foreign service officer and U.S. Agency for International Development official, was nominated in May. If confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, he would oversee the State Department unit that deals with refugee resettlement and assistance to displaced people, including those fleeing conflict.

He is known for his outspoken views on immigration, including as a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors domestic extremism, has deemed a hate group. The center describes itself as a nonpartisan research organization on the impact of immigration on the U.S.

McCain and Coons said Mortensen had “attacked American religious leaders for sheltering and assisting immigrants,” calling his public comments undiplomatic and “antithetical to America’s long history of welcoming immigrants.” Their letter referenced essays by Mortensen posted on the think tank’s website, including one in which he referred to the Obama-era policy of granting work permits for “Dreamers” — young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children — as “elite-driven child abuse.”

The State Department confirmed that it had received the letter but said only that it would “respond as appropriate.” Mortensen couldn’t be reached for comment.

But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, defended Mortensen’s nomination and said his views on immigration were not relevant to overseeing aid to refugees and displaced people oversees. He pointed to Mortensen’s long career in government providing humanitarian assistance in places like Mali, Sudan, Haiti and Syria.

“Ron Mortensen has delivered more food to the hungry and clothes to the naked and medicine to the sick than every single joker in the U.S. Congress put together,” Krikorian said in an interview. Of McCain, he added: “It’s no surprise that McCain would team up with a Democrat to criticize someone who is hawkish on immigration. That’s been McCain’s M.O. for a long time.”

McCain, who is in Arizona fighting brain cancer, is one of a growing number of GOP lawmakers expressing concern about the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” approach to illegal border crossings that has drawn widespread scrutiny over the forced separation of migrant children from their parents. He and Coons, of Delaware, wrote that Trump should withdraw Mortensen’s nomination and instead “nominate someone who is committed to the United States’ legacy of promoting the human rights of displaced people.”

“The nomination of Mr. Mortensen for this position sends a chilling message to all those around the world who look to the United States as a beacon of hope and security for persecuted peoples,” McCain and Coons wrote.