By Cindy Y. Rodriguez, CNN
(CNN) - On Monday, President Barack Obama nominated Thomas E. Perez, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department of Dominican origin, to be the next secretary of the Labor Department. He will replace Hilda Solis, the nation's first Latina Cabinet member, who resigned in January.
Supporters say it is a step in the right direction for the Latino community, and they hope it sets a precedent.
“This move is significant because there has been at least one [Latino or Latina] in the president’s Cabinet since Ronald Reagan’s years,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “What’s even more significant is that it's not somebody who is Mexican-American, Puerto Rican or Cuban-American as in previous years.”
In 2010, there were an estimated 1.5 million Hispanics of Dominican origin residing in the United States, comprising 3.0% of the U.S. Hispanic population.
Perez is the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with French-speaking Haiti. He was the first lawyer in his family. Speaking in English and Spanish, Perez spoke about his upbringing at Monday's announcement.
"My parents taught my four siblings and me to work hard, to give back to our community, and to make sure that the ladder of opportunity was there for those coming after us," Perez said. "Over my career, I’ve learned that true progress is possible if you keep an open mind, listen to all sides and focus on results. I look forward to taking these lessons with me, if confirmed, to my new role as secretary of the Department of Labor."
For Ydanis Rodriguez, who is Dominican and a New York City councilman, Perez’s nomination is especially significant.
“To see a Dominican moving forward, or any person person of color appointed to an important position, it gives me hope that one day we will live in a nation where people from different ethnic groups are represented in high office,” Rodriguez said in an interview. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is to be sure that we get the best talent to lead that understands the needs of a different community, someone whose record reflects a priority with human rights issues.”
As an assistant attorney general for civil rights, Perez investigated cases at the center of controversy, including filing a civil lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County, citing civil rights violations.
"At its core, this is an abuse-of-power case involving a sheriff and sheriff's office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, compromised public safety and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics," he said at the time.
The Justice Department determined that Arpaio had engaged in "pattern or practice of wide-ranging discrimination against Latinos and retaliatory actions against individuals who criticized" his department's activities.
Earlier this year, Obama's Cabinet came under scrutiny for the loss of diversity in women, African-Americans and Latinos.
Vargas noted positions open at the Commerce and Transportation departments, and he hopes to see Perez joined by another Latino or Latina.
“The system works if our government reflects the people, and the way that happens is for Latinos to fully participate,” said Vargas. “That not only includes running for and being elected to office but also serving in appointed office.”
In 1988, Lauro Cavazos became the first Latino to serve in a Cabinet-level position, as secretary of education. He started with the Reagan Administration and stayed on with President George H.W. Bush until December 1990.
When Cavazos departed, no new Latinos were appointed to Bush’s presidential Cabinet. Bill Clinton’s administration included three Latino Cabinet members – the most of any presidency in history. They were Henry Cisneros (Housing and Urban Development), Federico Peña (Transportation) and Bill Richardson (Energy), according to NALEO.
George W. Bush’s administration included the first Latino attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez. Other Latinos serving in his administration include Mel Martinez (HUD) and Carlos Gutierrez (Commerce). He also nominated Linda Chavez as his labor secretary in 2001, but she withdrew her name.