WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama intends to tap the nation’s top civil rights enforcer as the new secretary of labor, a choice seen Sunday as an opportunity to raise the department’s profile as the White House tackles immigration reform.
The expected nomination of Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, would make him the only Latino in the Cabinet at this point in Obama’s second term.
Two Cabinet-level Latinos from Obama’s first term decided not to stay on. Hilda L. Solis, a former California congresswoman, resigned as labor secretary, and Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator, left the post of interior secretary.
A Harvard-educated lawyer, Perez is a first-generation Dominican American with a career in public service. His nomination would be welcomed by Democrats and members of organized labor, who see him as a tireless advocate of worker and civil rights.
The nomination, which requires Senate confirmation, could face a backlash from Republicans over Justice Department activities. Notably, Perez has filed civil rights lawsuits against law enforcement officials, including one last year against Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the brash Maricopa County, Ariz., lawman. The suit accuses Arpaio’s department of a “pattern of unconstitutional conduct” against Latinos in the state.
An announcement of Perez’s nomination is expected but is not imminent, sources familiar with the deliberations confirmed Sunday.
The Labor Department post could play an important role in the president’s second term, as Obama has made immigration reform a priority. One of the thorniest issues is the creation of a temporary worker program that Republicans want but has not been explicitly proposed.
Because of his background and the policy implications for the workplace and employment, analysts say Perez could become a leading voice on the issue.
Appointed as assistant attorney general at the Civil Rights Division in 2009, Perez has spent his career in public service at the federal, state and local levels, a department biography says.
A Harvard graduate, Perez was a Justice Department attorney for 12 years, working civil rights cases.