Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D)
Texas 16th District
El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, face each other across the narrow Rio Grande, their tree-shaded streets spread out below the rough brown face of Comanche Peak. Downtown El Paso is only a few blocks from the bridge to Juarez. The two border cities are surrounded by hundreds of miles of some of North America’s most rugged and desolate landscape. El Paso is closer to San Diego than to Houston, it’s 600 miles from Dallas-Fort Worth, and it’s in a different time zone from the rest of the state. Still, the region has grown significantly. In the 1950s, El Paso and Juarez each had a population of 140,000. In 2006, there were 736,000 people in El Paso County, about 80% of them Hispanic, and the Mexican census counted 1.2 million in metro Juarez. This is a bilingual, bicultural pair of cities, where most people have a Mexican heritage. El Paso is one of the lowest-wage and lowest-education locales in the United States, and the third-poorest county in the nation. Juarez, though struggling with drug cartel violence and crime that has caused some residents to flee, is one of the highest-wage cities in Mexico. Big companies have moved back-office jobs to El Paso. Cotton is the predominant local crop, and the city is known as a boot-making center. Maquiladora factories created a cross-border economy, bolstered by the North American Free Trade Agreement. The economy is not all based on low-skill labor, though much of it is. South of the border, there is a large General Motors technical center. Many factories on both sides of the border were shuttered during the recession that began in December 2007 and Juarez had lost 42,000 jobs by early 2009.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 16th Congressional District of Texas is made up of 96% of El Paso County—the city itself, the suburban fringe, giant Fort Bliss to the north and rural housing settlements known as colonias, most without electricity and running water, spread out to the east and south. Fort Bliss was a big winner in the 2005 base closing review, with a $5 billion expansion and a net gain of nearly 30,000 soldiers. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic, though native son George W. Bush got 44% of the vote against Democrat John Kerry in the district in 2004. Republican presidential nominee John McCain got just 33% in 2008, with Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s winning easily with 66%.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D)
Elected: 1996, 7th term.
Born: Nov. 10, 1944, Canutillo .
Home: El Paso.
Education: El Paso Commun. Col., A.A. 1977.
Family: Married (Carolina); 3 children.
Military career: Army, 1966–68 (Vietnam).
Elected office: Canutillo Schl. Board, 1968–70.
Professional Career: Border Patrol agent, 1969–95.
The congressman from the 16th District is Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat first elected in 1996. He is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Reyes grew up on a farm in Canutillo, five miles north of El Paso, the oldest of 10 children. He went to college in El Paso and Austin, then served in the Army in Vietnam, where he lost hearing in one ear during an enemy rocket attack. Once home, he “took as many civil service tests as I could, and the Border Patrol called” in 1969. He worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in four cities in Texas and Glynco, Ga., before returning to El Paso in 1993 as a chief border patrol agent. When he got there, he found that “people could basically cross the border at any time, wherever they wanted to.” Reyes started “Operation Hold the Line,” positioning 400 officers on the border instead of trying to intercept illegal aliens after they had already crossed into El Paso (amazingly enough, that had been firmly-rooted INS policy). Mexico complained about threats to its sovereignty, merchants worried about the loss of sales, homeowners fretted about finding domestic help, and border agents feared losing credit for apprehending aliens. But the innovative Reyes reduced the flow of illegal immigrants in the area by more than half. The move was almost universally popular north of the border and ultimately was accepted to the south.
|Silvestre Reyes (D)||130,375||(82%)||($1,034,725)|
|Benjamin Mendoza (I)||16,348||(10%)|
|Mette Baker (Lib)||12,000||(8%)|
|Silvestre Reyes (D)||75,058||(80%)|
|Jorge Artalejo (D)||18,274||(20%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (79%), 2004 (68%), 2002 (100%), 2000 (68%), 1998 (88%), 1996 (71%)
With local name recognition at 65%, Reyes retired from the INS in November 1995 and ran for Congress. He talked of the need for integrity and common sense in Washington against a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Rep. Ron Coleman, who had 673 overdrafts at the House bank during the scandal that revealed widespread abuses by members of their tax-subsidized banking privileges. Coleman had also been accused by Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, a Democrat, of trying to block the prosecution of a local developer. In December, Coleman announced he was retiring, and he and labor unions backed Jose Luis Sanchez, his legislative assistant, as his successor. Sanchez accused Reyes of being a Republican in disguise for backing a cut in capital gains taxes. Reyes hewed to his moderate platform, promising more high-technology jobs and more highways. He led in the primary 42%-28%, and despite a full court press by Sanchez and the unions in the runoff campaign, he won 51%-49%. He easily won the general election.
In the House, Reyes’s voting record has been to the left of center. On the immigration issue, he opposed the Republican plan for placing a fence along the border as unconstitutional, impractical and “a waste of federal dollars,” and said he preferred an increase in federal personnel and resources. In 2006, he praised President Bush’s call for a guest-worker program. As violence increased in Mexico in 2009, Reyes discussed with Mexican leaders steps to decrease drug violence and to reduce gun smuggling from north of the border. He said that the permanent solution for the border is economic stabilization for Mexico and backed retraining for American workers displaced by NAFTA, which he said has been a great success overall.
Reyes moved into the national spotlight in December 2006, when Nancy Pelosi selected “Silver” to chair the Intelligence Committee, passing over Reps. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Alcee Hastings, D-Fla. She cited his “impeccable national security credentials.” As chairman, he got the U.S. Justice Department to turn over previously withheld documents from the surveillance program of the National Security Agency, and he voiced doubt about the “hyped” claims of the Bush administration that Iran was interfering in Iraq. In a February 2008 letter to Bush, Reyes warned against eavesdropping practices that might violate civil liberties. “We cannot allow ourselves to be scared into suspending the Constitution,” he said. But Reyes mostly kept a low profile and sought bipartisanship and cooperation with the Bush administration where possible. He distanced himself from liberal Democrats who opposed renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and he sought to avoid a confrontation with the White House over the controversial use of water boarding in terrorism investigations. Water boarding is a form of coercion that simulates drowning. When Obama took office in early 2009, Reyes recommended additional intelligence resources in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a senior member on the Armed Services Committee, Reyes has been a supporter of the missile defense program. He worked to protect Fort Bliss from possible base closing, and he claimed credit when additional soldiers were stationed there. He opposed the use of force in Iraq and criticized the intelligence failures in Iraq in the months before the war, but he later called for a troop increase in Iraq to dismantle local militias stirring up conflict.
Reyes is a former chairman of the all-Democratic Hispanic Caucus. He unsuccessfully tried to convince Hispanic Republicans to join the group. At home, Reyes has not been seriously challenged for re-election.