WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez is the highest-ranking Latino in Maryland's government, a first-generation Dominican-American with a gold-plated resume and solid connections in President Barack Obama's world.
But when Obama selected the Harvard Law graduate recently to be the nation's leading civil rights enforcer, the president was sharply criticized by some in the Hispanic civil rights community. The controversy has become a flash point for some Latinos, a key voting bloc, amid questions about the timing of an Obama push for immigration reform.
The criticism isn't directed at Perez, 47, or his qualifications. Instead, it revolves around a belief that the administration passed over another Latino attorney for the job as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, possibly out of a desire to avoid a messy fight over immigration.
A statement by the National Council of La Raza, which calls itself the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights organization, expressed "profound disappointment" that Thomas Saenz, an adviser to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, wasn't chosen for the position.
"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.
Saenz was reported last month to be the leading contender for the Justice Department post. A close associate of Saenz's, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, was quoted last week as saying that he had been offered the appointment and accepted it. Saenz has refused to comment.
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 remains under consideration for another, unspecified administration post.
His defenders link Saenz's failure to secure the civil rights job to his advocacy for immigration rights.
Perez has been active in the past with immigration rights organizations, in Maryland and nationally. But as a public official he was identified more with issues such as importing prescription drugs from Canada and legalizing slot machines in the state.
Obama, during the first two months of his presidency, has left immigration in the background as he dealt with the economic crisis and promoted energy, health care and education initiatives.
Saenz, a former lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, has pushed for anti-discrimination protection against Border Patrol sweeps.
For his part, Perez appears to have achieved little, if any, public prominence on hot-button immigration issues, despite his involvement with CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group, on whose board he served from 1995 to 2002, including as president. He also was on the board of the National Immigration Forum for just over a year in 2004 and 2005.
The Takoma Park resident spent seven years at the Justice Department as an attorney in the civil rights division and was a Clinton administration appointee as head of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Cruz Reynoso, who served with Perez as an Obama transition team leader on civil rights, said he had no inside information about Obama's decision to appoint Perez.
But in an interview, 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."
The civil rights division deals with a wide range of anti-discrimination enforcement. But historically, immigration is "not a major issue" for its lawyers, said Joseph Rich, a former chief of the voting rights section.
Richard Simon of the Tribune Washington bureau contributed to this article.