Today, Amicus launches its new Features section, which will offer essays and interviews featuring prominent figures in the civil rights/civil liberties community.  We are happy to have Tom Perez, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, as our first featured guest.

Recently, Amicus had a chance to sit down with Mr. Perez and speak with him about his career and present civil rights issues.  Mr. Perez has spent his entire legal career in public service working on civil rights issues, in a career that included work for the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services, serving on the board of the Montgomery County Council in Maryland, and acting as counsel to Senator Ted Kennedy.

Let’s start with the big question.  Why did you choose to go into public service, and specifically civil rights work?

I believe that civil rights remains the unfinished business of America.  My parents taught me to work hard, get a good education, and get a job in which you can help people in need and make sure that the ladder is always down for folks who are in need of help, and civil rights is about providing equal opportunity, so it’s a wonderful way to give meaning to the values that I was taught growing up.

Briefly, if you could just talk through what brought you to this position, what career steps you took between law school and being here.

Well, starting in law school I had an opportunity to get involved in a wide range of activities in the civil rights context, including this journal [the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review] and clinical work, and that simply confirmed my desires to be involved in civil rights work.  Then, following my clerkship, I had a chance to go back to the Department of Justice where I had served as a summer clerk, and to be an entry-level attorney there, prosecuting hate crimes cases and other criminal civil rights violations. I think the foundation of everything I did in my career was constructed in the seven years or so of doing those criminal prosecutions, because you learn how to take complex facts and distill it into a story that you can tell a jury as to why a person should be convicted of a horrific hate crime.

And I really had a very remarkable set of opportunities, and frankly, some lucky breaks at times.  The opportunity to work for Senator Kennedy was remarkable for me, because when you think of civil rights, you think of Senator Kennedy, so that was an incredible opportunity.  The opportunity to come back and serve as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division was an equally remarkable privilege.  And then, really, the opportunity to come back now and head the division, there is a wonderful cadre of career professionals there that I work with.  I’ve really been able to serve in a variety of jobs in federal government, state government, and local government, elected, appointed, staff-level, and all of these jobs have just been a real privilege, and you can serve underserved communities in different ways in all of these jobs.

Is there any one experience you think is the most satisfying, that you’re the most proud of having done in your career so far?

I get asked that question with some frequency, and my honest answer is that I love all of my experiences, and I always challenge students to make sure that they choose a career path that provides that level of fulfillment.  Lawyers tend to be a risk-averse group of people in the aggregate, and as a result lawyers have a disproportionate amount of mental health bills, because they get into positions that may be financially remunerative, but not spiritually or personally fulfilling.  I’m one of the few lawyers who can look you in the eye with pride and say that I’ve loved every job I’ve ever had.

I think it’s important to understand the chapter that one is in, in one’s life and where we are as a nation.  For me, when I was doing criminal prosecution, my wife and I didn’t have children at the time, I could afford to be on the road for 140 days a year doing cases across the country, and I knew that wouldn’t work for me in a different chapter in my life.  When I ran for local office in Montgomery County, Maryland, there was not a lot of opportunity to make progressive change at the federal level.  In the year 2002, being in local government was a wonderful way to make a difference in people’s lives.

The Obama administration has since brought forth an era of restoration and transformation [at the federal level] of civil rights, so it’s a real honor to come back and help to restore and transform a division that has really been a conscience of the federal government, and in the words of the Attorney General, a ‘crown jewel of the department’.

What do you consider the most important issue that the Civil Rights Division is facing today?

It’s hard to pick only one issue, because when I go and I listen to Muslim leaders in Tennessee as I did a couple weeks ago and see this headwind of intolerance that has swept the nation, and see mosques that are burned to the ground,  and see Islam referred to as a ‘cult’ by people of prominence, that tears my heart out.  When we complete a prosecution of a Latino kid who was murdered in a park, a hate crime because they didn’t want Mexicans in Shenandoah, PA, that tears my heart out.

When I talk to people who have seen the American dream of home ownership transformed into the American nightmare as a result of the corrosive power of fine print and the acts of discrimination by unscrupulous lenders, that certainly tears my heart out.  When I see military voters, the men and women serving our nation and states who are not complying with their responsibilities under certain voting provisions of the MOVE Act and to make sure they have the opportunity to vote, that is unconscionable.

So that’s why it’s impossible to say one is more important than the other, because they are all important.  Whether it’s employment, voting, housing, police misconduct, and so on, it’s all part of an inextricably interwoven covenant with the American people, a covenant of opportunity.  The civil rights laws are about ensuring the access to opportunity, whether it’s the opportunity to vote, the opportunity for people with disabilities to do all the things that someone like myself who takes for granted, the opportunity to work in an environment free from discrimination, that’s what virtually all of what we do is about.

It’s also about preserving some of the fundamental infrastructure of democracy.  I mean, the right to vote is really part of our infrastructure of democracy.  The police work we do is tremendously important; the mark of a truly democratic society is a police department that is both effective at reducing crime and a department that respects the Constitution and the rule of law.  What we do is we help maintain this infrastructure of democracy.

We also help protect some of our most vulnerable residents, some who are forgotten, some who are unpopular.  Protecting people who reside in jails, where the conditions are unconscionable, is a big part of our work.  So it’s hard for me to say that one is more important than the other, because it’s all part of the fabric of civil rights and the fabric of opportunity.

One of the big and popular issues right now is the immigration issue playing out in Arizona and across the country; this is a complex issue and a lot of people don’t seem see it very well from a civil rights perspective, but there are definitely some huge civil rights concerns there.  What have you seen, and what is your department doing to address that?

We have a wide array of activities that addresses challenges confronting immigrants.  We enforce employment laws, and so we reached the largest settlement in our division’s history against Catholic Healthcare West, which is one of the largest health providers in the country, and what they were doing was discriminating against legal immigrants, and I do mean legal, L-E-G-A-L immigrants, by requiring that they produce documentation to confirm their status that was above and beyond what’s required by law.  They were treating foreign-looking and foreign-sounding people differently, and the law clearly forbids that.

Our hate crimes prosecutions, we see a real spike in cases of violence against immigrants, such as the case in Shenandoah that I just described involving a Latino immigrant.  We just completed a prosecution of a case involving threats on the Internet against the heads of MALDEF, LULAC, National Council of La Raza, two other Latino-focused organizations that had the audacity to advocate on behalf of immigrants, and they receive E-mails that say, “I’m going to kill you because of what you’re doing.”

And we have the work in Arizona, and that was a joint venture of a number of units within the Department of Justice, where the Civil Rights Division certainly played a role.  We need comprehensive immigration reform, that much is absolutely accurate, and there’s an understandable frustration across America with the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.  President Obama has tried to pass it repeatedly, he has invited leaders of the Republican Party to join him in that effort in the spirit of Ronald Reagan, Alan Simpson, Ted Kennedy, and the bipartisan spirit that has always characterized immigration, but unfortunately that hasn’t happened.  So, you end up with laws like the one Arizona, which are unconstitutional.  It is the government’s strong belief, and the district court affirmed this, that in immigration matters there is one and only one quarterback, and that is the federal government.

The reason there’s one and only one quarterback is because immigration decisions have law enforcement consequences, foreign policy consequences, and humanitarian consequences, and you can’t have 50 states with 50 different policies.  You can’t have every locality within a state with a different immigration policy, either.  It’s a long-standing principle of Constitutional and statutory law in the United States that there is one and only one quarterback in immigration, and that is why the United States enjoined the Arizona provision, and why I’m confident that the injunction will be upheld on appeal.

So there’s a wide array of challenges confronting immigrants.  In the education context, we just reached an agreement here in Boston with the Boston public school system to ensure that people who are limited English proficient can have access to the equal educational opportunities.  There are laws on the books that guarantee that access.  You see immigration issues come up in the education setting, the hate crimes setting, the employment setting, and in the voting setting where we enforce laws that guarantee that United States citizens who are limited English proficient can have access to bilingual ballots in certain circumstances.  So we have a wide-ranging enforcement program that addresses the wide-ranging challenges that are confronted in these communities.

You testified before Congress about the need to expand the Americans with Disabilities Act; what kind of progress have you seen since then on that front?

There’s been enormous progress in the twenty years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Through litigation and through mediation, I think we’ve been remarkably successful in both literally and figuratively breaking down barriers for people with disabilities, but like so many issues, we’ve made a lot of progress but a lot of work remains.

For instance, the issue of accessing the Internet and other critical technologies is part of the current and future frontier of ADA enforcement.  We take the Internet for granted, and assistive technologies should be the best friend and often are the best friend of people with disabilities, but all too often there are barriers to access.  That’s why we’ve reached a settlement recently with the manufacturers of the Kindle, because the Kindle wasn’t fully accessible to people with vision impairment.

There are literally tens of thousands of people with disabilities who are unnecessarily warehoused in institutions when they could be living in community-based settings.  These are people with a wide array of disabilities, some are physical disabilities, some are developmental disabilities, some are people with mental illness, and in 1999 the Supreme Court said in the Olmstead decision said that the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities is a violation of the ADA.  For many advocates in the disability community, it was hoped that this case would be the Brown v. Board of the disability rights movement, and on a certain level it has been, in the sense that progress has occurred with “all deliberate speed”, and just recently within the last week we reached a landmark settlement with the state of Georgia where the Olmstead case originated.  That settlement is going to be our template of all the work that we do across the country because it provides people with disabilities to live in communities, and I think we’ve demonstrated that we can do so in a way that’s cost-effective, so we’re not only doing the legally and morally correct thing, but we’re also doing a fiscally prudent thing.  And it’s always helpful when you can show not only a roadmap for compliance with civil rights laws, but a roadmap to spend your money more intelligently.

You’ve worked in public service your whole life, but there are plenty of students here and elsewhere who are definitely interested in public service but are interested in working for law firms for at least a few years for various reasons.  Do you have any particular advice based on your experiences beyond what you’ve already said?

I think a lot of it is the search for passion and what gets you out of bed in the morning.  I have a brother-in-law and a sister-in-law who are partners at law firms, and they love their subject matter and they love their law firms, and they derive remarkable fulfillment from their work, and their firms are active in pro bono and other community-related matters, so that path is really working fulfillingly for them.

For me, the path of public service has been the path I’ve always wanted to pursue.  I’ve had a remarkable set of opportunities to help build communities, to help ensure equal opportunity, and to address injustice, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I say this as someone who grew up in a single-parent family, my dad died when I was a kid, and I didn’t have a benefactor paying my college or law school, so I’m hypersensitive to the financial constraints that many students confront.

But having said that, I also strongly encourage people to follow their passion, and I have a number of friends who knew that their passions were in public service but for one reason or another went down a different road, and found that road remarkably unfulfilling, because they got involved with things that just didn’t get them out of bed in the morning, and you’ve gotta like what you do.  Happiest is the person whose job is their hobby because they never have to work a day in their life.  That’s always the advice that I give students, to figure out what your passion is and follow it, get jobs that are fulfilling, enable you to grow professionally, broaden your horizon, get yourself off and on your comfort zone, and are fun!  If you can do that, you can really go places and really make a big difference.

My last question was going to be if you had any final advice for young lawyers looking to make a difference, but it sounds like you’ve already covered that; do you have any final thoughts to share on the subject?

Experiment!  Take law school as a time to experiment.  Get outside your comfort zone, take jobs, volunteer, for students at Harvard there’s a very generous program for reimbursement for the summer so you’re at a competitive advantage, you’re at an elite law school and you have resources to subsidize public-interest work, so experiment away.  Some of those experiments will absolutely light a fire under you.  Some you’ll absolutely hate, and that’s a good lesson too because you’ll understand what you don’t want to do, but career paths are often the process of elimination.  Some days you think, “I want to do this,” and then you do it for a summer and realize it wasn’t what you thought, and that’s a good lesson.  Take risks, but take educated risks.

And don’t just do it over the summer.  There’s a remarkable array of possibility just right here in the Boston area, there’s the winter term which presents opportunity, and you should take advantage of it.