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President Obama Nominates Thomas Perez, Top Civil Rights Enforcer, for Secretary of Labor

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thomas perezPresident Obama nominated Thomas E. Perez, the nation’s top civil rights enforcer, as the new secretary of Labor today, another sign of immigration reform’s current significance on the national stage.

Perez is the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and has led the Administration’s efforts against state anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 56.  Both laws were passed in Obama’s first term, and both have been found to be mostly unconstitutional, for provisions that criminalized immigrants for being undocumented and prevented them from seeking employment or renting homes (among other things).  Perez also led the charge for a Department of Justice lawsuit against Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious abuser of civil rights and enforcement power.

Adam Luna, a senior advisor at America’s Voice, spent large parts of the fall and winter of 2011 in Alabama, after HB 56 had just begun being implemented and there was chaos on the ground.  He was in the state when Perez came to hear immigrants’ firsthand accounts of how the law affected them.

As Adam said today, “I met Tom Perez at a Birmingham Metro NAACP community forum on the law where he spoke to the crowd about the civil rights implications of the anti-immigrant law and advised folks about their rights under Federal law.  Under his leadership, the DOJ set up a civil rights hotline and Perez traveled the state personally speaking with community leaders and community members about working with the DOJ to report abuses.  It was great to see an Administration official personally step up like this in Alabama.”

Following the departures of former Labor secretary Hilda Solis and Interior secretary Ken Salazar, Perez might be the only Latino in Obama’s second-term cabinet, and other advocates expect that he would “fight like hell” for issues like immigration reform.  As Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, told the Los Angeles Times, “He’s not combative, but he’s determined.”

Christine Owens, Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project, said “He’s a first-generation American, so in a way his story is the immigrant story.  He’s always been deeply committed to immigrant workers’ rights, and I do think he can bring both a professional and personal perspective as we implement immigration reform.”

The Labor Department could play an important role in immigration reform, since legislators are still figuring out if and how they will create a temporary worker program that provides laborers for employers while protecting employees.  If Perez is confirmed, here’s our wish list for Perez and his new post as Secretary of Labor (congratulations to the incoming secretary!):

  • Take immediate action to defend the Southern 32 and immigrant labor organizers targeted by ICE agents in the South and elsewhere
  • Play an assertive role in the development of immigration reform legislation that protects the rights of workers
  • Begin Department-wide planning for immigration reform implementation to ensure that millions of immigrant workers get the fair wages, benefits and safe workplaces they deserve.