Reyes, Silvestre: 1944—: Congressman
Silvestre Reyes: 1944—: Congressman
Silvestre Reyes is a Mexican-American Democratic congressional representative from the 16th District of El Paso, Texas. He is a Vietnam veteran who spent more than 25 years working for the Immigration and Naturalization Services, most notably as the chief of the United States Border Patrol in El Paso. He earned a reputation as an innovative and effective leader by introducing new programs to control illegal immigration along the United States-Mexico border. As a congressman, Reyes has used his expertise on immigration issues to work on legislation related to border security, national security, and military defense. He has also been outspoken on issues affecting Hispanics, and since 2001 he has been the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Silvestre Reyes, known as "Silver" to his friends, was born on November 10, 1944, in Canutillo, Texas, a rural community five miles from El Paso. Reyes, the oldest of ten children and a third-generation Mexican American, was raised in very modest conditions on a farm. Spanish was his first language and he learned English only when he started grade school. As a young boy Reyes helped out on the family farm. One of his jobs was to keep an eye out for border patrol agents and blow a horn if he spotted them so that the undocumented workers on the farm could hide. As fate would have it, Reyes would grow up to become one of those border patrol agents. As a teenager Reyes worked during the summers as a migrant laborer in California and the lower Rio Grande Valley.
In 1966 Reyes joined the military and spent two years fighting in Vietnam. Upon his return to the United States, Reyes used his G.I. Bill benefits to attend college. He graduated with an associate's degree from El Paso Community College in 1977 and also took some classes at the University of Texas at Austin and at El Paso. During this time Reyes also worked to support his family. Reyes is married to Carolina Gayran Reyes and the couple have raised two girls, Monica and Rebecca, and one boy, Silvestre, Jr.
Joined Immigration and Naturalization Service
Reyes spent his entire professional career as a civil servant. In 1969, after ending his military service, Reyes was hired by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). He worked his way up the ranks of this organization. He spent five years as the assistant regional commissioner for the INS in Dallas. In this position he was responsible for INS activities in 13 states, with a budget of $100 million. From 1984 until his retirement in 1995, Reyes worked as the chief of the U.S. Border Patrol in McAllen, Texas, supervising over 500 employees, and in El Paso, overseeing over 900 employees. El Paso is the largest border community in the United States and it lies just across the international border from the Mexican city of Juarez, Chihuahua. More than 70% of El Paso's residents are of Mexican origin. According to a December 1994 article in Newsweek, "When Silvestre Reyes took over as El Paso's Border Patrol Chief last year, the city stood out as an embarrassing symbol of the failure of U.S. immigration policy."
At a Glance . . .
Born Silvestre Reyes on November 10, 1944, in Canutillo, Texas; married Carolina Gayran Reyes; children: Monica, Rebecca, Silvestre, Jr. Education: El Paso Community College, A.A., 1977. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Democrat. Military Service: Armed Forces, 1966-68.
Career: Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1969-95; Chief of U.S. Border Patrol, 1984-95; U.S. Representative, Texas, 16th District, 1996–.
Memberships: Air Force Academy Visitors Board; American Legion; Association of the U.S. Army; AMVETS; Disabled American Veterans; Transatlantic Learning Community; US/Mexico Interparliamentary Group; Veterans of Foreign Wars; Vietnam Veterans of America.
Awards: Outstanding Alumnus Award, American Association of Community Colleges, 2001; National Legislative Award, League of United Latin American Citizens, 2002.
Address: Office— 514 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515-4316.
However, Reyes quickly turned that image around, introducing effective border patrol programs such as the Canine Program and the National Anti-Drug School Education Program. However, it was a program called Operation Hold the Line, implemented in 1993, which brought Reyes national acclaim. Until that time border patrol agents had focused on catching illegal immigrants while they were in the United States, rather than trying to keep them out of the United States in the first place. This led to high profile cases of harassment of Hispanic U.S. citizens by border patrol agents, and it meant that border communities such as El Paso were flooded with illegal immigrants. Reyes changed this approach dramatically by assigning agents to work to prevent aliens from crossing the border in the first place. He secured $300,000 in federal money to keep 400 agents patrolling the twenty miles between El Paso and Juarez.
As a result of Operation Hold the Line there was a noticeable decline in the number of illegal immigrants crossing the El Paso-Juarez border. "We've made a dramatic impact on the quality of life in El Paso. We've cleared the beggars and windshield washers from the intersections. Vehicle thefts are down, home burglaries are down, assaults are down," Reyes told Texas Monthly in a November 1995 article assessing his program.
Some researchers and public officials downplayed the success of the program, arguing that Operation Hold the Line was simply displacing illegal immigration to other border communities, and reporting that many downtown El Paso businesses were suffering because many of their customers were illegal immigrants. Additionally, some publicly criticized Reyes for being a Mexican American who was policing Mexicans, a position which offended Reyes. "I took an oath just like every other officer to uphold the Constitution of the United States," Reyes told Texas Monthly. "I don't think there should be a different set of standards for a Hispanic doing this job than there is for an Anglo or a black. We all wear the same uniform; we all exercise the same authority."
Elected to Congress
After leading a successful career in the INS for 25 years and gaining local and national attention for his programs with the El Paso Border Patrol, Reyes retired from the service in 1995 to pursue a political career. "The local press hailed him the Colin Powell of El Paso, a man who stood so high above politics that he must surely want a political career," the Economist wrote about Reyes in March of 1996. Reyes decided to run as a Democrat for a congressional seat in the House of Representatives for the 16th District, which lies within El Paso County. He campaigned on a moderate platform, urging more spending for education and promoting high-tech jobs, highway development, and capital gains tax cuts. Reyes faced a tough primary election against a candidate who was supported by the unions, but won in a runoff with 51% of the vote. He went on to win the general election, becoming the first Hispanic to represent this district. Reyes went on to win two more elections in 1998 and 2000. "Although Reyes campaigned for the March 12 primary as a pro-life, law-and-order Democrat, his real popularity lies not in what he advocates but in what he personifies: the local Hispanic farm boy who made good, the man who got mainstream society to accept him as an American citizen first and a hyphenated American second," reported the New Republic in April of 1996.
Reyes quickly positioned himself as a leader on immigration issues. After only five months in office, Reyes was one of only three congressmen asked to join President Clinton in a meeting with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. This was a historic meeting, since it was the first time an active United States president had visited Mexico City since 1979. At the meeting leaders discussed border management, drug trafficking, immigration, and transportation issues. In November of 2001 Reyes co-sponsored the Immigration Reform and Accountability Act, which recommended restructuring the INS. "I strongly believe that if we are going to truly improve the way we secure our border and serve future citizens and residents, we must abolish the INS and create one bureau responsible for border enforcement and one bureau responsible for other immigration services," Reyes explained in a press release regarding the proposed legislation. As a result of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Reyes has become outspoken on the importance of border security. In response to the passage of a border security bill on May 8, 2002, Reyes said in a press statement, "Securing our homeland is vital, and it is imperative we begin at our borders."
Reyes has also focused his political career on other issues. As he told the Miami Herald in June of 2001, "I also have to work diligently not to get pigeonholed as just the one to see on border issues." For example Reyes is interested in promoting United States-Mexican relations, particularly with respect to economic development. In a press statement Reyes explained, "With our location at the center of the U.S.-Mexico border and ideal position on the established Pan American Highway and Camino Real trade routes, El Paso must become a key artery for commerce between Latin America, the U.S., and Canada."
Became Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus
Reyes has also worked to improve education in El Paso, to enhance military defense, particularly at the Army's Air Defense Training Center at Fort Bliss, to research programs at White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, and to protect veterans' benefits. He is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Veterans Affairs Committee, and the Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism. He also belongs to numerous caucuses, including the Law Enforcement Caucus, the National Security Caucus, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, the Older Americans Caucus, the Urban Caucus, and the Democratic Caucus Task Force on Education, among others. In September of 2001 he was appointed to the Democratic Caucus Homeland Security Task Force, which has focused on national security after the September 11th terrorist attacks against the United States. His voting record has reflected his moderate political stance. As Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service reported in June of 2001, "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."
In 2001 Reyes became chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), a team of 18 congressional representatives of Hispanic descent working to advance issues that affect the Latino community. For example, the CHC has supported farm worker programs, lobbied for food stamps for illegal immigrants, and fought for bilingual educational services. In 2001 Reyes spoke out against President George W. Bush's tax cut plan because it would not help most Hispanic families. As Reyes stated in a March 8, 2001, press release, "President Bush's tax package is fiscally irresponsible and leaves Hispanic families behind. This is not the way to treat the fastest growing minority population in the nation." In 2002 the CHC announced plans to join forces with the Congressional Black Caucus and the Asian Pacific-American Caucus to work together on health issues, immigration, and campaign finance reform.
In addition to his congressional work, Reyes also belongs to several civic organizations, such as the American Legion, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, Transatlantic Learning Community, and U.S./Mexico Interparliamentary Group. In 2001 Reyes received the Outstanding Alumnus Award from the American Association of Community Colleges. In 2002 he received the National Legislative Award for strong leadership as chair of the CHC, from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest and largest Latino civil rights organization.
Christian Science Monitor, April 18, 1996, p. 3.
Economist, March 16, 1996, p. 27.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 12, 2001, p. K4756; April 23, 2002.
Miami Herald, June 10, 2001.
New Republic, April 15, 1996, p. 14.
Newsweek, December 5, 1994, p. 34.
Texas Monthly, November 1995, p. 22.
Hispanic Journal, www.hispanicjournal.com/congressional/Silvestre_Reyes.html
—Janet P. Stamatel
Without Western concessions, Moscow declared it would turn over its responsibilities in East Berlin to the GDR and allow East German officials to regulate civilian and Allied military traffic between West Berlin and West Germany. Khrushchev did not want to risk nuclear war; Presidents Eisenhower (1959) and Kennedy (1961–62) were willing to negotiate, but neither would grant the concessions he sought.
In the event of a military confrontation, Eisenhower and the Allies authorized U.S. Commander‐in‐Chief Europe (CINCEUR) Gen. Lauris Norstad to create a secret planning group—code‐named “Live Oak”—to develop contingency plans. Yet Eisenhower ruled out a conventional U.S.‐Soviet war over in Germany; he considered U.S. capabilities for massive nuclear strikes as sufficient both for deterring a serious crisis and for war‐fighting. When the Kennedy administration came to power, however, its emphasis on nonnuclear and limited nuclear options prompted Pentagon and Live Oak planners to develop plans for conventional warfare in Central Europe. In addition, the Live Oak group was attached to NATO, with West German membership.
The Berlin crisis became most intense after the Kennedy–Khrushchev summit at Vienna in June 1961. Khrushchev set a six‐month deadline for a settlement. Kennedy authorized a U.S.‐NATO conventional buildup, heightened nuclear alert, and accelerated contingency planning. To staunch a tremendous outflow of East German refugees, Khrushchev in mid‐August supported GDR leader Walter Ulbricht's efforts to close the East‐West Berlin sector borders, first with barbed wire, then with a concrete wall. The Western Allies condemned this new border closing.
The only military confrontation of the second Berlin crisis, the “Checkpoint Charlie” incident, occurred in late October 1961 when tank deployments on both sides of the Wall followed U.S. challenges of GDR restrictions on official travel to East Berlin. However, both sides carefully regulated this brief confrontation. Meanwhile, pressured by Britain and neutral powers, Kennedy had initiated diplomatic contacts in late September and Khrushchev withdrew his deadline. Negotiations stalemated during 1962 and U.S. officials worried about major Soviet moves, but a crisis occurred over Cuba, not Berlin. The shock of the missile crisis, however, may have lowered tensions over Berlin; also easing the situation, some scholars argue, was Bonn's signature on the Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963), which reduced Moscow's concerns about a nuclear Germany. Nevertheless, divided Berlin remained a Cold War flash point and the Live Oak group remained in existence in the event that an access crisis occurred. Live Oak disbanded, however, in 1990, when Germany reunified and Berlin's occupation ended.
[See also Berlin Airlift; Cold War: External Course; Germany, U.S. Military Involvement in.]
Jack Schick , The Berlin Crisis, 1958–1962, 1971.
Marc Trachtenberg , A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963, 1999.
U.S. Department of State , Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, ed. David Baehler and Charles S. Sampson, 1993.
U.S. Department of State , Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Vols. 14 and 15, ed. Charles S. Sampson, 1994.
Anatoly Dobrynin , In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents, 1995.
William Burr , Avoiding the Slippery Slope: Eisenhower and the Berlin Crisis, November 1958–January 1959, Diplomatic History 18 (Spring 1994): 177–206.