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Washington - President Barack Obama on Monday nominated Tom Perez, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, as labour secretary - a job that would give him a key role in the administration's efforts to raise the minimum wage and reform immigration laws.
Perez, 51, is the only Latino nominated to Obama's second-term Cabinet so far. He is expected to face opposition from some Republican senators who say he has been too aggressive on certain immigration issues and too political.
Obama described Perez's career as exemplifying the American success story, noting Perez, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School, helped pay for college by working as a garbage collector and in a warehouse.
“If you're willing to work hard, it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, what your last name is - you can make it if you try,” Obama said. “Tom's made protecting that promise for everybody the cause of his life.”
Obama urged the Senate to confirm Perez quickly. He said he said would be an integral part of his economic team as the administration works with Congress to try to overhaul immigration laws to give the country's 11 million illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
Obama also has proposed increasing the minimum wage to $9 per hour from its current level of $7.25, an initiative that the Labour Department has been promoting around the country.
Perez's nomination was championed by Hispanic groups, which have pushed for more representation in the Cabinet.
Perez made brief remarks in Spanish and English at his introduction, which was attended by Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO labour federation and Benjamin Todd Jealous, head of the NAACP, the nation's largest civil rights group, among others.
“At a time when our politics tilts so heavily toward corporations and the very wealthy, our country needs leaders like Tom Perez to champion the cause of ordinary working people,” Trumka said in a statement.
But there were early signs that Republican senators could raise objections to the confirmation of Perez.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama called Perez “the wrong man for this job” and criticised him for being too aggressive helping undocumented immigrants find work as part of an advocacy group called Casa de Maryland.
“His views on illegal immigration are far outside the mainstream,” Sessions said in a statement.
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also expressed concerns after the release last week of a an internal government investigation of a Justice Department office overseen by Perez.
The report, by the Justice Department's Inspector General, was critical of Perez for what it called an incomplete statement he gave in 2010 about a case of alleged voter intimidation.
It also found the office that enforces voting laws has been beset by political infighting.
But that criticism “largely predated” Perez's time at the helm of the Civil Rights Division, White House spokesperson Jay Carney told reporters.
“The inspector general reported that Mr Perez has taken a number of steps to foster a more collegial and professional workplace,” Carney said, quoting from the report.
Perez began his career as a civil rights prosecutor at the Justice Department, and later was head of the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services.
He spent time working as a special counsel to the late Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy on civil rights, including immigration reform issues.
Perez served in local government in the Washington suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland. Later, he was labour secretary in Maryland's government, where he worked on reforms for state lending and foreclosure rules.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, head of the Judiciary Committee, called Perez a “fierce defender of workers' rights” who is “uniquely suited” for the job. - Reuters