Over the holiday weekend, due to some confusing news reports and social media postings, there was a surge of public attention focused on a Trump administration policy, announced earlier this month, requiring the forcible separation of children and parents who are caught illegally crossing the border. Regardless of the reasons, public focus on this story is a welcome development. The people who are targeted by the mandatory separation policy are largely Central American refugees who have a legal right to ask for asylum, and the transgression being exploited to exert this draconian punishment — crossing the border illegally — is a misdemeanor, not a felony.
So loud was the clamor against this policy that President Trump resorted to Twitter (of course) in a blatant effort to confuse the public over a policy his administration not only created but has bragged about.
"Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there parents [sic] once they cross the Border," Trump tweeted Saturday morning, seeming to blame Democrats for a policy they had nothing to do with.
Trump's words ring especially hollow in light of his administration's actions just two days before that tweet, when it was announced that he had nominated Ronald Mortensen, a fellow with the far-right anti-immigration group, the Center for Immigration Studies, to work as assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the State Department. The bureau's mission is to "provide protection, ease suffering, and resolve the plight of persecuted and uprooted people around the world," but Mortensen, in the tradition of Trump appointees, has a career that strongly suggests he objects to the very mission of the group he's been challenged with leading.
“Trump is stacking the immigration wing of his administration wing with people connected to hate groups," explained Heidi Beirich, the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. “They’re undermining immigration policy by putting anti-immigrant folks into positions of authority in the administration over these issues.”
The Center for Immigration Studies has been designated a hate group by the SPLC due to the not-so-subtle white nationalist bent of its immigration "research." The group is one of many founded by John Tanton, who wrote in 1993 "that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that." (Tanton's other comments suggest he excludes Latin Americans from the category "European-American," even though those countries are former European colonies and many of their residents are at least partly of European ancestry.)
This racist history has continued through the present, with the Center for Immigration Studies's current director, Mark Krikorian, saying things like, "Haiti’s so screwed up because it wasn’t colonized long enough" and that "you can't distinguish" between "the dishwasher and the terrorist" when it comes to national security. In 2008, Krikorian published a book arguing against both legal and illegal immigration, writing that "Mexican immigrants are especially deficient in institution building."
Krikorian has repeatedly denied that the Center for Immigration Studies is a hate group, arguing in a Washington Post op-ed that the SPLC overuses the term and that the "obvious goal" is to marginalize their organization "by bullying reporters into avoiding them, scaring away writers and researchers from working for them, and limiting invitations for them to discuss their work."
Salon reached out to the Center for Immigration Studies, inviting its leaders or spokespeople to discuss their work and beliefs. We received no response.
In his work for the Center for Immigration Studies, Mortensen focused largely on resisting efforts to open up legal immigration opportunities and on characterizing undocumented immigrants as criminals. He combined these two efforts by writing extensively against DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), protesting efforts to legalize these undocumented immigrants and characterizing them as criminals, even though DACA status is explicitly denied to those with felony or significant misdemeanor convictions.
In 2017, Mortensen wrote an op-ed for The Hill arguing that DACA "rewards illegal aliens (the so-called 'Dreamers') for destroying the futures of innocent American children." To justify this claim, Mortensen accused DACA recipients of widespread identity theft, claiming they must be stealing Social Security numbers from citizens to escape detection. Mortensen did not provide any evidence of a single DACA recipient doing this, much less any evidence that the problem is widespread.
Instead, it appears that he started with a narrative — DACA recipients are criminals — and cast around wildly until he could come up with a plausible-sounding, if paper-thin, argument to rationalize this pre-existing conclusion.
In fact, if stolen Social Security numbers are a real concern, then the solution is not to make it harder for undocumented immigrants to get legal status but to make it easier. When immigrants fake Social Security numbers, it's almost always to get a job. By giving them legal status, either through DACA or outright amnesty, the government would remove the incentive for people to use fake numbers in the first place.
"If confirmed by the Senate, Mortensen will be the fourth person to join the administration directly from a nativist hate group and will be stepping into an influential role shaping immigration policy," Beirich wrote on Friday. Julie Kirchner, the former director of another Tanton-related group called the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), was given power over immigration policy at the Department of Homeland Security. Her former FAIR colleague, Robert Law, now works for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Yet another Center for Immigration Studies employee, Jon Feere, is a senior advisor at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Breaking up families that aren't white to punish them for seeking legal status in the United States has long been a hobbyhorse of the Center for Immigration Studies staff. The group heavily promoted the term "chain migration" to demonize naturalized citizens who sponsor family members to immigrate from Asia and Latin America. (Melania Trump is an immigrant and her family has moved to the United States, but she's a white woman from Europe so this is not characterized by Trump's supporters as "chain migration.") In January, Krikorian openly demanded that the federal government curtail the ability of citizens to sponsor visas for family members overseas, arguing that family reunification amounts to a "pyramid scheme."
The Trump administration policy of separating children from parents at the border is just an extension of this logic. Earlier this month, Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly suggested that taking children away and putting them in foster care is an overt effort to discourage immigrants whom he feels won't "easily assimilate into the United States." Again, it's worth remembering that many of these folks have a legal right to apply for asylum, so the family separation strategy is essentially a workaround, a way to make obtaining legal rights so onerous and heartbreaking that people give up.
That is why the Trump administration's network of links to hate groups like the Center for Immigration Studies are so troubling. This whole fight has never been about the legality of immigration. Groups like the Center for Immigration Studies object to legal immigration, at least when the immigrants aren't white, and are being appointed to jobs where they will have power to make life very hard for people who are seeking legal avenues to become U.S. residents or even citizens. Mortensen's job, at least nominally, will be to oversee refugee programs created to help people who have a legal right to be here. If history is any indication, he will seek to do the opposite.