Migration Agency Picks a New Leader, and Sends Trump a Message

Ken Isaacs was forced to withdraw his candidacy to lead the United Nations migration agency, tainted by his own track record and President Trump’s migration policies.

GENEVA — Delivering a stiff rebuke to the Trump administration over its handling of migration issues, the International Organization for Migration rejected on Friday the American president’s choice to become the agency’s next executive director, choosing instead a former deputy prime minister of Portugal.

The election of the new leader, António Vitorino, was seen as a barometer of United States influence in multilateral agencies after President Trump’s decision to withdraw the country from international commitments on climate and trade, as well as from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“This reflects the reaction to the overall Trump approach to international organizations, the United Nations, and its decision to withdraw from the Human Rights Council,” Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said by telephone from Washington. “There’s a clear pushback against the Trump agenda.”

Mr. Vitorino was approved after the American candidate, Ken Isaacs, was forced to withdraw after finishing last in three rounds of early voting. The result was confirmed by Leonard Doyle, the communications director for the immigration agency.

Mr. Isaacs, vice president of the evangelical Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse, had been regarded as a strong candidate for chief of the United Nations migration agency, which has been led by an American for most of its 67-year history and to which the United States is the biggest donor.

But he drew scrutiny from the moment he was nominated in February because of Twitter posts and re-tweets denigrating Islam as a violent religion and casting doubt on climate change. He later apologized for the postings, made his Twitter account private, and insisted in interviews that he did believe in climate change.

Mr. Isaacs has long experience of dealing with humanitarian emergencies around the world in his work for Samaritan’s Purse, but his candidacy to lead a global agency dealing with migration was tainted by his own track record, as well as Mr. Trump’s migration policies.

Mr. Trump has moved to ban travel to the United States from citizens of several predominantly Muslim countries, and he drew global scorn when the American authorities separated migrant children from their parents on the southern border with Mexico.

Mr. Isaacs’s defeat was “a sad statement on U.S. global credibility,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former director of the foreign disaster assistance program at the United States Agency for International Development, who is now a senior policy fellow at the Global Center for Global Development.

Mr. Konyndyk said that selecting Mr. Isaacs as a candidate had been “unwise” given the controversy over his statements on migrants and climate change. The bigger problem, he added, was the Trump administration’s views on asylum rights, travel bans and migration policies.

“The world was unlikely to support a U.S. candidate to lead the global migration body under those circumstances,” he said.

Diplomats said that Mr. Isaacs had credible field experience in handling humanitarian crises, but that his candidacy had suffered from his lack of experience with intergovernmental and diplomatic relations at a time when the organization is increasingly engaged in shaping global policy on migration issues.

With a budget of about $1.6 billion, the organization provides aid to people fleeing conflict and disasters, and it often comes to the assistance of migrants who are attempting perilous journeys in search of a better life.

The agency has around 9,000 staff members in more than 150 countries, and it prides itself on cost effectiveness. Its headquarters in Geneva are relatively small, with a high proportion of its employees deployed in field offices.

Mr. Vitorino won by acclamation in the final ballot, defeating Laura Thompson, a former Costa Rica ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva who is now the migration agency’s deputy director general.

Mr. Vitorino, who served in the Portuguese government led by António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, and later as European commissioner for justice and home affairs, attracted support as a skilled political operator who was well-suited for the highly charged issue of migration.

Speaking briefly to journalists after the vote, Mr. Isaacs congratulated Mr. Vitorino, said it had been an honor to run as the United States candidate and praised the migration organization, but he left without answering questions about why he had lost or whether the Trump administration's policies had cost him the race.

Mr. Vitorino, who will take office at a critical point in international discussions on a global compact, told reporters that there was “an urgent need to make the case for multilateral cooperation” in order to manage migratory flows, guarantee the fundamental rights of migrants, and establish a close link between migration and international development.

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