By Amanda Becker
(Reuters) - In his first major speech since being sworn in last week as the new U.S. labor secretary, Thomas Perez vowed on Tuesday to work with President Barack Obama for comprehensive immigration reform, a higher minimum wage and implementation of new healthcare laws.
The 51-year-old son of Dominican immigrants, Perez told Reuters in an interview that his Labor Department will be a tough labor law enforcer and pursue the kind of litigation that yielded a record $280 million in back wages for workers in 2012.
He said the department will confront income inequality and level the playing field for workers. "As we emerge from the worst recession of our lifetime, I will make it my top priority to expand opportunity," he said.
Perez spoke to more than 1,600 people gathered at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles. He described a "direct relationship" between the economic security of middle-class workers and organized labor.
The comprehensive immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate and pending before the House of Representatives, he said, would help employers and workers by easing a workforce "skills gap."
He pointed to a program created when he was a county official in Maryland as an example of something that could be implemented on a national level. Montgomery County officials saw that a number of foreign-born nurses with legal status were working in the cleaning industry. With "nominal" investment, the county helped them improve their language skills and update their credentials. Local hospitals, which had resorted to recruiting nurses abroad, could then hire locally, Perez said.
"As we pass immigration reform, we're going to enhance opportunities in a lot of these high-demand areas because we have a treasure trove of people who simply need to address their immigration status," Perez said.
A native of Buffalo, New York, Perez's parents were first-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic. His maternal grandfather, an ambassador to the United States, remained here as a political refugee after criticizing the Dominican regime.
Perez told the AFL-CIO members that he had three newspaper routes and worked at a department store and on a trash truck before going to college and law school with the help of scholarships, work-study programs and government grants.
Since graduating from Harvard Law School, he has been a government prosecutor, county official, Maryland's Secretary of Labor and, most recently, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.
During a tumultuous Senate confirmation process, Republican lawmakers criticized his record on voting rights and immigration at the Justice Department. He was confirmed by the Senate in July after a deal to act on stalled nominations averted a showdown.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has praised Obama's decision to nominate Perez, saying he is an aggressive prosecutor who will support workers.
Perez said during his speech that the department, with Obama, is committed to raising the minimum wage.
He rejected the idea that higher wages would stifle job growth.
"When you have worker prosperity, you have economic prosperity," Perez said.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Lisa Shumaker)