A Chinese-American who was brought up above his parents' laundry in Harlem has risen to become the United States' top civil rights official. Bill Lann Lee, 48, whose parents emigrated from China during the Great Depression, was yesterday named by President Bill Clinton as the first Asian American to head the civil rights branch of the Justice Department. The appointment of an ethnic Asian to the prestigious post was welcomed by community groups, who had earlier condemned the President's failure to include a member of their community in the Cabinet of his second administration. Attorney-General Janet Reno also welcomed the decision, saying her new Assistant Attorney-General for Civil Rights had 'a lifetime of experience in civil rights law, and he is a skilled coalition and consensus-builder'. The appointment of Mr Lee, who has spent most of his career in civil liberties law, was seen as an acknowledgement of the contribution by Asian Americans to American life. In his current work as director of the Los Angeles office of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) - the nation's oldest civil rights organisation - Mr Lee is unusual in that he has made his name defending the rights of blacks, as much as Asian Americans. Despite the poverty of his upbringing in the New York ghettos, Mr Lee managed to gain a place at Yale University, moving on to Colombia University before working for legal organisations, including the Asian-American Legal Defence Fund. In his current work with the NAACP, he has been at the forefront of challenging a controversial statute approved by California's voters last year which bans affirmative action programmes designed to help minorities get jobs or college places. Mr Lee's liberal credentials may earn him a grilling by Republicans on the Senate committee which has to confirm his nomination, but he is thought likely to be approved comfortably. Daphne Kwok, executive director of the Organisation of Chinese Americans, said: 'The President has demonstrated his commitment to protecting the civil rights of all people in America with the appointment of Bill Lee, a most uniquely qualified individual whose entire career has been built upon equalising the livelihood and welfare of all Americans.' Karen Narasaki of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium said the community had been battered by associations with the Democrats' Asian cash scandal, and that Mr Lee's appointment was therefore a welcome move. In his statement, Mr Clinton noted that Mr Lee's father had encountered bigotry from Americans, even though he fought with US forces in World War II. Among Mr Lee's jobs will be to enforce federal laws on racial and sexual discrimination.