March 23, 2001

New Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman faces test of leadership skills

By Christopher Lee

WASHINGTON — Silvestre Reyes easily could have angered the very people he was trying to protect.

In 1993, the future congressman was chief of the U.S. Border Patrol's El Paso sector. Faced with 8,000 undocumented immigrants crossing daily through his territory, he devised an innovative strategy.

Reyes, whom friends call "Silver," stationed 400 officers along the border to deter illegal crossings instead of rounding up people who had already swept through. Operation Hold the Line could have been a public relations disaster in El Paso, where most residents are Hispanic and many have strong family ties to Mexico.

Instead, the number of illegal crossings fell by half, crime and homelessness decreased and the policy won broad public support. Immigrant-rights groups argued that the policy would merely detour would-be immigrants to more rural areas, where the crossings would be more dangerous.

But for many in the border town, Reyes carried the day. "My fear was that he was going to be a bureaucrat and not care about people's sensitivities," said Pete Duarte, who ran a south El Paso clinic whose clients included undocumented immigrants. "And he handled it like a statesman."

Reyes, born and reared near El Paso, retired from the Border Patrol in 1995 to run for Congress, capitalizing on his newfound name recognition.

Now in his third term, the Democrat recently was unanimously elected as chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. It's a role that promises a higher national profile for the 56-year-old former Army sergeant — and a new test of his leadership skills.

Caucus members will have their first meeting Thursday with President Bush in the White House to talk about such issues as immigration and tax cuts. They sat down with Mexican President Vicente Fox on Feb. 20 in Mexico.

With only 18 members, the Hispanic Caucus is not a powerful voting bloc on Capitol Hill. Just getting them to agree on issues can be a challenge. Two Florida Republicans, both Cuban-American, dropped out because the group would not take a position on Cuba. The only other Hispanic Republican in Congress, Rep. Henry Bonilla of San Antonio, left the caucus in part because he thought it was too partisan.

All caucus members are Democrats, but Reyes said it would be a mistake to assume they march in lockstep.

"We've got people at different spectrums on the political scale, from very liberal to more moderate and conservative," Reyes said. "But there are issues that unify the caucus in a way that really sends a powerful message."

As examples, he lists civil rights, affirmative action and bilingual education. And they often find common ground on immigration issues, he said.

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, the caucus' first vice chairman, said Reyes is in a position to raise the profile of issues important to Hispanics.

"We're not there yet in a lot of areas and a lot of issues," Rodriguez said. "We still don't have the national figures like in the African-American community. So the vacuum is there and it's wide open for anyone to come in."

Caucus members say they hope to be players on immigration, Hispanic business growth and economic development in low-income communities. Reyes' chief goals include electing more Hispanics to Congress as well as boosting Latino political participation. Hispanics, he said, must show political muscle commensurate with their status as the fastest-growing minority group in America.

"I don't think we've realized our clout yet," Reyes said. "We are emerging as a political force. We have a realization that if you don't stand up for the kinds of issues that are important to your community, then you are going to lose completely."

Reyes has earned a reputation in Congress as an expert on border issues and someone willing to buck his own party if necessary.

He teamed with Republicans to advocate splitting the Immigration and Naturalization Service into two agencies — one to provide benefits to U.S. citizens and lawful immigrants, and a second to enforce immigration laws.

That proposal, which will be revived this year, has met with some disfavor within the caucus.

He also has criticized as too confrontational the U.S. policy of judging the drug-fighting efforts of Mexico and other countries. He has said that members of Congress who want to deploy military troops along the border don't understand the region's issues.

Reyes, who was a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam, also sits on the House Armed Services Committee, where he watches out for the interests of Fort Bliss, near El Paso. Models of fighter jets and Army helicopters sit on his office shelves, and one wall bears the seals of five branches of the military.

"The Army really changed my life," Reyes said. "I was born and raised on a farm and probably would be there on that farm today if I hadn't been drafted in 1966."

Hector Holguin, an El Paso businessman who has known Reyes for more than a decade, said his friend still has a winning mixture of toughness and diplomacy.

"I haven't seen him change," Holguin said. "He has kept that same ramrod-type way of doing things, no nonsense. He stands tall and looks people in the eye and people immediately trust him.

"That helped him become a recognized leader not just in the Hispanic community, but in the entire community."

(Reprinted from "The Dallas Morning News", March 19, 2001.)

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