When Thomas Perez was nominated in 2009 to a top Justice Department post, Senate Republicans delayed a vote for months over his past work with a group that aids immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
Perez returns to the Senate for a confirmation hearing April 18 as President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the Labor Department, the only Hispanic in his second-term Cabinet so far, this time posing a political challenge to the Republican Party. Republicans are seeking to woo Latino voters lost in 2012 by quelling their anti-immigration rhetoric, and some members are working with Democrats on a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
“Most Republicans will be gun-shy over asking the hard immigration questions because of the Hispanic vote,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who was a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. “It would be wise for Republicans to be very careful in raising an immigration argument against Perez.”
Democrats control the Senate with 55 of 100 votes, and Perez already has broad support from the party in power. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called him “highly qualified” and worthy of speedy confirmation as Obama seeks to replace Hilda Solis, who resigned as Labor secretary in January.
Obama’s nomination of Perez drew swift criticism from some Republicans. Perez’s leadership of the Justice Department civil rights division prompted Republicans, including Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, to argue that some of his decisions were based on ideology. Roberts and Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa want to examine whether Perez acted improperly when he persuaded St. Paul, Minnesota, to drop a Supreme Court case that, had it prevailed, risked harming a central enforcement tenet in housing discrimination law.
So far, just one senator -- Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- has raised Perez’s work on immigration matters as a reason to block confirmation, with others declining to comment on his qualifications until the hearings.
Sessions says Perez is “far outside the mainstream” on policy on undocumented workers.
“We need a secretary of labor who fights to create jobs for American workers, not one that undermines legal work requirements,” Sessions said in a statement. “If the policies of Mr. Perez were to be enacted, jobs for Americans would be harder to come by and wages lower.”
A spokesman for Perez said the nominee will respond to critics at the Senate labor committee hearing.
“These issues will be explored and addressed at the confirmation hearing,” said Carl Fillichio, a Labor Department spokesman.
Perez, 51, is the child of Dominican immigrants. His father, Rafael, was a doctor who earned U.S. citizenship after enlisting in the Army. His mother arrived after her father was named the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the U.S.
Perez, Maryland’s labor secretary from 2007 to 2009, has been active promoting immigrant rights. In the late 1990s, he was on the board of the Central American Solidarity Association of Maryland, or CASA de Maryland, and president 2001 to 2002.
Local churches formed the group in 1985 to help a flood of Central American immigrants with emergency clothing, food, immigration help and English lessons. Later, it provided employment aid for day laborers who congregated on streets in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland.
Some of the group’s objectives during Perez’s tenure angered advocates of tougher immigration enforcement. It endorsed using embassy-issued cards in place of state IDs, in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and easing restrictions on immigrants receiving driver’s licenses.
“It’s a radical left-wing group that pays no attention to the immigration law,” said Maryland delegate Pat McDonough, a Republican and long-time critic of the group. “Their philosophy is that it’s not their job to find out if someone is legal or illegal.”
Gustavo Torres, executive director, said the group strives to help immigrants “fully integrate into their communities,” and limiting their roles in society “not only hurts them and their families, it’s also bad for the communities where they live.”
Any attacks on Perez and his work with the association “are shameful political maneuverings by extremists attempting to block bipartisan immigration policy reform,” Torres, who declined to be interviewed, said in an e-mail.
Perez’s work on immigration has extended beyond the Maryland group. After he was elected in 2002 to the Montgomery County Council with 77 percent of the vote, fueled by his outreach to Latinos, he drew fire for pushing to have county offices accept foreign embassy cards from those seeking government services.
At the Justice Department, the first-generation Dominican American also advocated on behalf of the undocumented. In May, he filed a lawsuit accusing Arizona’s Maricopa County and Sheriff Joseph Arpaio of racially profiling Latinos in cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
The Senate confirmation hearing coincides with calls by Republicans, led by the party’s national committee, urging a halt to their opposition to legalizing undocumented workers, after the party’s support plunged among Latino voters. Obama was backed by 71 percent of Hispanic voters, four percentage points higher than in 2008 and the highest since Bill Clinton was elected in 1996, the Pew Hispanic Center found.
A Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution poll of 4,465 people released March 21 found that 63 percent, including a majority of Republicans, backed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, as long as they met certain requirements.
Four Senate Republicans, including Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona, are participating in talks with four Senate Democrats on legislation giving undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. a chance to become citizens as part of an overhaul of U.S. immigration policies.
Other Republicans also are softening their positions. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Tea Party-backed member of the Senate panel that will weigh the Perez confirmation, last month endorsed creating work visas for undocumented immigrants, while letting Congress verify border security before revamping the nation’s immigration laws.
Any opposition to Perez on immigration may be muted from the positions Republicans would have staked out a year or two ago, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington-based group that advocates citizenship for the undocumented already in the U.S.
At the same time, just one senator can hold up confirmation, and a Republican who takes a tough stand against Perez over immigration could risk undoing the party leaders’ cultivation of Latino voters.
“They’re going to deepen the problems” for the party’s “damaged brand,” Sharry said. “Imagine how this plays on Univision and Telemundo,” the two Spanish-language networks.
At Numbers USA, an Arlington, Virginia, group that backs immigration curbs, top officials will push senators to oppose Perez’s confirmation as labor secretary. Roy Beck, the group’s president, says he isn’t expecting very many takers.
“Perez is protected a bit, because many Republicans may be afraid to bring up these issues,” Beck said. “They’re doing what Perez does -- they’re putting foreign workers over unemployed Americans.”