From Border Patrol to Capitol Hill? Citizen Reyes Runs for Congress

WHEN Sylvestre Reyes announced his candidacy for United States Congress from Texas's immigration-sensitive El Paso district last week, he emphasized economic development, the environment, education, and fair treatment in Washington as the main issues facing this border district.

He never once mentioned immigration. He didn't have to.

Mr. Reyes became a local hero and national personality in 1993 when as regional Border Patrol chief he implemented operation Hold the Line to stanch the flood of illegal aliens from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, into El Paso.

By stationing Border Patrol agents about 100 yards apart around the clock along a 20-mile section of the border, Reyes reduced the numbers of undocumented aliens arrested in El Paso - and the incidence of break-ins and car thefts in the city - virtually overnight.

Since then, as anti-immigration sentiments have gained in fervor across the country, the Reyes Solution has been implemented in California's busy San Diego border sector. And such national leaders as Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California have jockeyed for photo opportunities with Reyes.

Law and order

The popularity of Hold the Line in El Paso anticipated the rise of illegal immigration as a national issue. Now the immediate bipartisan appeal of the Reyes congressional candidacy may be demonstrating how a Democrat who is tough on a ''law and order'' issue but moderate on social and even fiscal issues can stem the country's conservative Republican tide.

As one of about 250 well-wishers at the Reyes announcement party Friday night, Jan Sumrall, a city representative and former Republican Party district administrator, said she was ''amazed and impressed'' by the number of prominent local Republicans in the crowd.

Before his announcement that he would run in Texas's March 12 Democratic primary, Reyes was referred to locally as a Hispanic Colin Powell because as a government official he refused to discuss his party affiliation, even as rumors about his run for Congress bubbled. Reyes retired from the Border Patrol Nov. 30.

Reyes, a political neophyte, may have made his decision on party affiliation as much on pragmatic grounds as out of ideological conviction. The Texas 16th Congressional District has been represented since 1982 by liberal Democrat Rep. Ron Coleman, who is retiring. District registration is 60 percent Democratic, and an even higher percentage of the district's Hispanic voters register as Democrats. The race has so far attracted two Republican candidates and three Democrats, but Reyes is considered the front-runner.

Growing scrutiny

But on a handful of major national issues, Reyes sounds like the ''moderate Democrat'' he says he is. ''I'm for balancing the budget, but I believe we have to do it in a way that does not disproportionately impact people in any economic category,'' he said in an interview. And despite his personal opposition, he said abortion ''should remain between a woman and her physician.''

As for immigration, the man who as an adolescent farm worker in Texas was responsible for blowing a horn to warn illegal migrant workers of approaching Border Patrol agents is sure to face growing scrutiny on the issue.

Reyes will have to confront the view of some US-Mexico border experts that Hold the Line is a local palliative; it merely pushes illegal immigrants to other crossing points, while hurting the El Paso economy by discouraging many Mexicans from coming here to shop. Then there are local critics who say Reyes has divided a border community of two cities - El Paso and Juarez. ''Sylvestre Reyes may ride the coattails of anti-immigrant sentiments to Washington, but he has put up a wall in the middle of our community, and I think that's sad,'' says Ruben Garcia, director of a shelter here for undocumented aliens.

While Reyes opposes illegal immigration, he also opposes the big reduction in legal immigration now being considered in Congress. ''I would hate to see any long-term impact on the benefit this country enjoys from the legal immigrant,'' he says. ''It's one of the parts of us that has made us as strong as we are.''

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