3 minute read

Silvestre Reyes: 1944—: Congressman

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.

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."

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dudley Randall Biography - A Poet from an Early Age to Ferrol Sams Jr BiographySilvestre Reyes: 1944—: Congressman Biography - Joined Immigration And Naturalization Service, Elected To Congress, Became Chair Of The Congressional Hispanic Caucus