September 2, 2006


He Walks The Line (Paul Burka, August 2006, Texas Monthly)

The main reason I went to Laredo was to talk to Representative Silvestre Reyes, of El Paso, one of several Democrats from Texas who had been invited to join the panel. Reyes knows more about illegal immigration than anyone in Congress. For more than a quarter of a century, he was a Border Patrol agent. The grandson of an immigrant from Chihuahua, he rose through the ranks to be the first Latino sector chief, first in McAllen, then, in 1993, El Paso. In the latter city, he reduced the number of apprehensions per day from 1,000 to 150. [...]

In December 1995 Reyes, with his name identification at 65 percent, resigned to run for Congress. The following spring he defeated a staffer for the retiring incumbent in a Democratic primary runoff. But it was his misfortune to arrive in Congress just after the Democrats had lost their majority status, which they have yet to regain. As a result, his expertise has been wasted.

“I was naive,” Reyes told me, as he directed me to sit on his left. (He is deaf in his right ear, the result of an attack on his bunker in Vietnam.) I noted that the author’s description of him from the 1994 article—“a round face and sad brown eyes”—still held true. We were sitting in the cafe of La Posada, the hotel that was hosting the hearing, and the kind of glad-handing that guys do, especially guys in politics, was going on all around us. Reyes ignored it. “I figured that I’d be able to get something done on immigration because of my experience and because the border is in the backyard of my district,” he said. “I haven’t been able to do anything.”

The reason, he says, is that the Republicans in the House treat immigration as a national security issue. “They are two different issues,” he said. “‘Security’ is used by colleagues with agendas. There’s an undercurrent of racism in this issue. I don’t make that observation casually. Racism is deliberately fueled to demonize Mexico and the Mexican people. You’d think that all the 9/11 terrorists came from Mexico. There’s no reasoning with people who are intent on making it into a 9/11 issue.”

I asked Reyes what our immigration policy would look like if he had his way.

“Start with more manpower,” he said. “That was the post-operation report on Operation Hold the Line. But you can’t hire ten thousand Border Patrol agents overnight. It’s a stretch to hire two thousand a year. You have to have the right ratio of inexperienced to experienced agents.

“Second, you have to understand why people come here—to get a job. That means enforcing employer sanctions [for violating the law by hiring illegal aliens]. Only three cases were prosecuted in 2004, down from one hundred twenty-four the year before.

“Third, more technology. Cameras are good for officer safety. In some places, you can spend money better on sensors and radios. Let the sector chiefs decide. Figure out where you want to be in 2012 and implement that plan.” (I asked Reyes about building a wall. “Fencing is essential in El Paso,” he said. “We share a boundary with a city of almost two million people. You’ll need fencing in Nogales and San Diego. But not a two-thousand-mile fence.”)

“Fourth, a guest-workers program. Otherwise you run the risk of ruining the economy. “Fifth, a legalization program for people with clean records. Reading and writing English should be a condition of citizenship.”

The key, of course, is that four and five obviate any need for one, two, and three, which would make supposed budget hawks happy if it weren't for race.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 2, 2006 12:00 AM

The fence does come in handy in the El Paso area to deter petty cross-border crime, which is a problem on the far west side of the city, when the river turns north towards Las Cruces and the Union Pacific freight trains are bothered by boxcar bandits who can better negotiate the land boundary (and since the river was stuck into a concrete bed between El Paso and Juarez 40 years ago due to a border mapping dispute, you're not really taking any scenic vistas away from the public).

Posted by: John at September 2, 2006 11:12 AM