Perez on the hot seat

Our view: Md. labor secretary has work cut out for him in confirmation fight

March 31, 2009

The nomination of Maryland Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez as head of the Justice Department's division of civil rights should rise or fall on his qualifications and not on partisan rancor over immigration reform.

The president's nominee for this post was likely to spark a fight regardless of his or her political views because the division's 300 lawyers enforce the civil rights laws banning discrimination based on race, sex, disability and national origin. Their cases cut across a broad range of areas, from education, employment and housing to voting rights and access to health care. Because these are also among the most contentious issues in American politics, the top civil rights job has long been one of the most difficult to fill.

That's why despite his moderate credentials, Mr. Perez's nomination is expected to draw much partisan criticism. In his current position, Mr. Perez has focused on work force development and foreclosure issues. He's a former Montgomery County councilman and civil rights attorney in the Clinton Justice Department, and he also served on the board of CASA of Maryland, an immigrant rights group that recently criticized the targeting of Latino day workers in Baltimore. Still, Latino groups have expressed disappointment at the nomination, saying it signals administration backpedaling on immigration reform. Just as predictably, conservative Republicans are gearing up to accuse Mr. Perez of being too liberal on immigration. What both groups seem to be missing is that immigration policy is set by the Department of Homeland Security and enforced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is, if anything, only a minor responsibility of the civil rights division's lawyers.

Just because Mr. Perez has a Hispanic background doesn't justify introducing the hot-button issue of immigration into the confirmation process. That's a red herring in the coming debate over Mr. Perez's qualifications, and we urge senators not to be distracted by it.

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