Obama's Choice Of One Latino Attorney Over Another Leaves Immigration Advocates Sour

At a time when Latino and immigration advocates are closely watching every decision coming from the West Wing, President Barack Obama’s appointment last week of a Dominican American attorney from Maryland as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division has generated complaints and discomfort.

But Thomas Perez, the nominee for Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, and until now the Maryland Secretary of Labor, is not the reason for the griping.

Rather, advocates who are weighing Obama’s commitment to immigration reform are angry about the president’s decision to pass over California’s Thomas Saenz, counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and a former vice president of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF.)

Obama’s change of heart –the job was reportedly offered to Saenz and then withdrawn — was interpreted as a lack of will on the part of the White House to engage in a prolonged confirmation fight that could have been a prelude to a Congressional debate on the administration’s immigration reform proposals.

Saenz, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Tyche Hendricks wrote, “is famed in Latino civil rights circles for leading the successful challenge to California’s (anti-immigrant) Proposition 187.” He had pushed in the past “for anti-discrimination protection against Border Patrol sweeps,” The Baltimore Sun‘s Paul West reported. “His lawsuits overturned local ordinances banning day laborers from city streets,” according to the ABA Journal.

After reports came out that Saenz had been offered the job at the end of February, conservative opposition to his nomination started o build. In an editorial, Investor’s Business Daily called hima man who has dedicated his life to promoting illegal immigrant ‘rights'” and a former “top lawyer for a radical Hispanic group that wants to cede California to Mexico.”

Los Angeles Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión said in an editorial,

Anti-immigration groups torpedoed this brilliant attorney’s appointment because of his work with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF).

Critics reduced the importance of MALDEF to a caricature and Saenz to a simple defender of “illegals.”

The Blog of Legal Times last week reported that Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, a close friend of Saenz, said he was offered the Justice Department position and had accepted.

…but he was told on Thursday that the White House was going with Perez instead.

Molina accuses the White House of seeking to avoid a controversial nomination process, where immigration would figure prominently.

“It was a political decision from the White House, because of Tom’s work on immigration rights,” she says.

The official announcement that the White House had chosen Maryland’s Perez –who has worked with immigration groups but is not so strongly linked to the issue– was met with dismay among immigrant advocates.

Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, “expressed profound disappointment” over the decision, according to a statement. “This action may lead some to question whether the White House is ready to fulfill its promise on immigration reform,” she said.

According to the Los Angeles Times,

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.”

Without criticizing the Perez nomination, MALDEF rejected the attacks against Saenz and itself, accusing them of “demonizing and distorting the records of achievement of Latino leaders and organizations.”

In the 1960s, Thurgood Marshall, Jr. underwent and withstood similarly vicious attacks and worse as he moved from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to exemplary government service as Solicitor General and Supreme Court Justice.

The same resolve against injustice is vital now especially when Latinos are facing dramatic and violent hate crimes including murder.

(Three days later, MALDEF published a second statement in support of Perez.)

While no White House officials would talk about the appointment openly, an unidentified White House spokeswoman told the L.A. Times that Saenz remained under consideration for another, unspecified post.

While that may be true, Latino advocates have not been mollified.

“(T)he White House,” La Opinión lamented, “apparently preferred to replace Saenz than hear —and refute— the misstatements made against (MALDEF) during his confirmation hearing.”

· UPDATE: The New York Times referred to the Justice appointment in an editorial published Tuesday, where it said,

Mr. Obama may have avoided a nasty fight this time. But if he is ever going to win the battle to put 12 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, he will to have to confront and dismantle the core restrictionist argument: that being an illegal immigrant is an unpardonable crime, one that strips away fundamental protections and forgives all manner of indecent treatment.

The Constitution’s bedrock protections do not apply to just the native-born. The suffering that illegal immigrants endure — from raids to workplace exploitation to mistreatment in detention — is a civil-rights crisis. It cannot be left to fester while we wait for the big immigration bill that may or may not arrive under this president.

Mr. Saenz would have been an ideal candidate to reaffirm values that have been lost in the poisoned immigration debate, had Mr. Obama dared to nominate him.

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.