Este informe no está disponible en español.


A New Frontier: Silvestre Reyes, Former Border Patrol Chief For El Paso Region, Now Heads Congressional Caucus


June 10, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- As a new member in a group of 435 strong-willed politicians, Rep. Silvestre Reyes found that the label ``border issue'' congressman helped him stand out. It was also a potential hindrance.

``Lots of people turned to me because of my background,'' said Reyes, elected in 1996 to the House at age 52, after a full career as Border Patrol agent and section chief for the El Paso, Texas, region that is his home.

In four years in the House, Reyes has emerged as ``an important player on immigration issues,'' according to Politics in America, Congressional Quarterlys guide to Congress.

``But I also have to work diligently not to get pigeonholed as just the one to see on border issues,'' he added in a recent interview.

Now in his third term, Reyes doesnt have to worry about that. As the new chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, he is expected to lead and talk about a wide range of issues, and immigration is just one of them.

Reyes stresses that the armed forces, economic development, investment in education and help for veterans are major concerns, and his committee assignments reflect that. He told House leaders he did not want to serve on the immigration subcommittee of Judiciary. Instead, he landed posts on Armed Services, Veterans Affairs and Intelligence.

That was fitting for Reyes, a Mexican-American U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam after growing up the oldest of 10 children on a farm in Canutillo, five miles north of El Paso.

``It was an environment of very hard work,'' recalled Reyes. ``Some might have called our circumstances austere or poor, but we did not feel that way. We worked hard, but had everything we needed.''

After his two-year Army stint, Reyes took ``as many civil service tests as I could, and the Border Patrol called.'' He attended community college while working his way up to district chief, and was known as a leader who got out in the field with his agents -- not that they were always happy about it.

``Some agents resented it, they thought I was checking up on them all the time, but I told them I needed to do it,'' he said.

Reyes became a district chief popular with Hispanics and non-Hispanics, as he moved to control the border, cut down on illegal entry and put pressure on Mexico to stop the influx of Central Americans. He parlayed his name recognition into a political career, winning a tough primary runoff in 1996 with 51 percent of the vote over a candidate backed by unions.


Reyes, a Democrat, has campaigned on a moderate platform: more spending for education, promoting high-tech jobs, highway development and capital gains tax cuts. In his first race he was endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

His voting record reflects a middle-of-the-road philosophy. He backed the liberal Americans for Democratic Action on 80 percent of his votes two years ago and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported he voted with that groups position half the time. He usually votes with his party, but has backed some measures pushed by conservatives, from a ban on so-called ``partial birth'' abortions to a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration.

Reyes also wins praise from some Republicans. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, calls him a ``wonderful man and a great legislator.''

Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Díaz-Balart of Miami, the two Cuban-American Republicans in the House, left the Hispanic Caucus four years ago in protest after the chairman at the time, Xavier Becerra, visited Cuba and met with Fidel Castro.

Reyes said he made an overture to the two Miamians to return to the caucus, and even stopped by a fund-raiser for Ros-Lehtinen. But both Miamians want the caucus to support free elections in Cuba as a condition of returning to the fold, and the caucus has been unwilling to jump into Cuba issues.

``We have some philosophical differences,'' Ros-Lehtinen said about the caucus, now all Democrats with its own political action committee. ``But we can also work together on issues we have in common like education and workplace discrimination.''


Reyes believes his moderate reputation as caucus chairman gives him standing when he criticizes the Bush administration for not budgeting more for education and health care. He has three children with wife Carolina and sees his work as part of a generational progression.

``My dad dropped out of sixth grade to work on the farm,'' said Reyes. ``But he insisted we graduate from high school. And now my children are able to get a college degree.''

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback