WASHINGTON — Thomas Perez is Maryland's highest-ranking Latino, but his selection as the nation's leading civil rights enforcer has provoked sharp criticism from some Latino civil rights advocates.
The criticism isn't directed at Perez, the state's secretary of labor and a first-generation Dominican American, or his qualifications.
Instead, it revolves around a belief that the administration passed over another Latino attorney for the position as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, possibly out of a desire to avoid a fight over immigration.
A statement by the National Council of La Raza, which calls itself the nation's largest Latino civil rights organization, expressed "profound disappointment" that Thomas Saenz, an advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, wasn't chosen for job.
"This action may lead some to question whether the White House is ready to fulfill its promise on immigration reform," said Janet Murguia, the group's president. Through a spokeswoman, she refused a request for further comment.
Saenz was reported last month to be the leading contender for the position. A close associate, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, was quoted late last week as saying that he had been offered the appointment and accepted it.
Saenz refused to comment, as did Villaraigosa's office.
Administration officials won't discuss the selection and vetting processes. But a White House spokeswoman, speaking on the condition that she not be identified, said Saenz remained under consideration for another, unspecified post.
Saenz's defenders link his failure to secure the civil rights job to his advocacy for immigration rights. That, in turn, has fed nervousness among some Latinos that Obama wanted to duck a Senate confirmation fight that would highlight the divisive issue.
Obama, during the first two months of his presidency, has left immigration in the background as he has dealt with the economic crisis and promoted energy, healthcare and education initiatives. But immigration was a central topic Wednesday, when the president met with members of the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Caucus members had met the day before to discuss whether to bring up the civil rights appointment with Obama and decided against it because, according to a member, they didn't want to take time away from their top priority -- immigration legislation.
"Why wouldn't you want to have someone who has a committed, dedicated, unblemished commitment to civil rights and to immigrants," Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) asked in an interview outside the House chamber.
He said Obama would convene a White House meeting in the coming weeks to further discuss immigration legislation. "Patience is waning," Gutierrez said. But he added: "We have to give him an opportunity. . . . This is going to be hard."
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles) said Obama made a commitment to "work with us to get a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed this year. . . . That would be the goal."
Saenz, a former vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), has pushed for anti-discrimination protection from Border Patrol sweeps.
Reports that he would be chosen for the job prompted opposition from anti-illegal-immigration forces. An editorial in Investor's Business Daily called him "a man who has dedicated his life to promoting illegal immigrant 'rights.' "
MALDEF said that "the same rhetoric from the same extremists that kept the Congress from enacting responsible immigration reform has been unleashed unfairly and inaccurately" against Saenz.
Perez, by contrast, appears to have little if any public record on hot-button immigration issues, despite his involvement with CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group, whose board he once headed. He also served briefly on the board of the National Immigration Forum.
He is a former staff attorney in the Justice Department's civil rights division and was a Clinton administration appointee as head of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services. He was a special counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the 1990s and has ties to John Podesta, who headed Obama's transition operation.
Perez, 47, was a leading member of the transition team for the Justice Department.
Cruz Reynoso, the first Latino to serve on the California Supreme Court, said he was "a little bit disappointed, frankly, that if what I hear is true, it may mean that the president is not willing to enter into the fight that I think we have to enter into to do any good on immigration."
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates tougher immigration enforcement, called Perez another Obama appointee who is "far outside the mainstream of general public thinking on immigration enforcement."
The civil rights division deals with a wide range of anti-discrimination enforcement, including voting rights violations and police misconduct.
Historically, immigration is "not a major issue" for its lawyers, said Joseph D. Rich, former chief of the voting rights section. He said Perez was "a great choice," in part because of his previous experience in the office.