Thomas Perez Could Become Only Latino In Obama Cabinet

PHOTO: Reports indicate President Barack Obama is close to naming Department of Justice official Thomas Perez as his choice to head the Department of Labor.

President Barack Obama is expected to tap Thomas Perez, the head of the Department of Justice's civil rights division, to serve as his next labor secretary. The appointment would make Perez the only Latino in the president's second-term cabinet.

Multiple media reports have indicated that Perez is Obama's likely pick to become the next head of the Department of Labor. Perez, 51, previously served as Maryland's labor secretary between 2007 and 2009 before joining the U.S. Justice Department. The White House declined to comment on these reports.

If selected and confirmed by the Senate, Perez would replace former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, who resigned from the administration in January. Another Latino cabinet official, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, is expected to leave his position by the end of this month. Ernest Moniz, Obama's nominee for energy secretary, is the grandson of Portugese immigrants from the Azores islands.

The news of Perez's impending appointment comes after Latino groups pressured the administration to appoint Latinos to fill vacant cabinet roles.

The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), a coalition of 30 large advocacy groups, sent a letter to Obama in January recommending that he select three Latinos to serve in cabinet-level positions. The letter provided a list of 18 potential nominees, including Perez.

"With the Latino community heading into the epicenter of an historic policy debate around immigration reform, and related policies, your Cabinet can ill-afford to not have the unique perspective and voice of high-level Latino members," wrote NHLA Chair Hector E. Sanchez. "At this critical time our voices need to be amplified, not diminished."

Perez, a first-generation American and the son of Dominican parents, has a long career of government service on issues that pertain to Latinos.

He gained notoriety last year when the Justice Department filed a civil-rights lawsuit against Joe Arpaio, sheriff in Arizona's Maricopa County, alleging that his department discriminates against Latinos. Arpaio has developed a reputation as an immigration hardliner, which has provoked Latino groups both in Arizona and nationally.

"The police are supposed to protect and serve our communities, not divide them," Perez told reporters in May 2012. "At its core, this is an abuse of power case involving a sheriff and sheriff's office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, comprised public safety, and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics."

The suit angered Republicans and Arpaio has fought to have it dismissed.

Perez, a Harvard Law School graduate, has also played a key role in the Obama administration's defense of the Voting Rights Act, which is being challenged in a case before the Supreme Court. The suit focuses on a key section of the 1965 law that requires jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to seek permission from the federal government before changing voting rules.

And while serving in the Clinton Justice Department during the 1990s, Perez headed the Worker Exploitation Task Force, "which oversaw a variety of initiatives designed to protect vulnerable workers," according to his official biography. In 2002, Perez became the first Latino elected to the Montgomery County (Md.) Council.

If he is selected as labor secretary, Perez would have many issues on his plate. Congress is considering a sweeping immigration overhaul and one of the key sticking points has been how to bring in more high-skilled and low-skilled immigrant workers into the United States. Perez has the support of organized labor groups, who have balked at a traditional guest-worker program for lower-skilled immigrants.

The president has also proposed raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour.

While Perez could be the only Latino in Obama's second-term cabinet, the president has selected other Latinos to fill key administration positions. For example, Edith Ramirez was recently designated chair of the Federal Trade Commission.

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