Six-term Texas congressman Silvestre Reyes has carved a niche in Washington as a go-to guy on immigration and national defense. The 62-year-old was born on a farm in Canutillo, Texas and didn't speak English until starting school at age 6. He served in Vietnam and, upon returning to the United States in 1969, worked for the U.S. Border Patrol, retiring in 1996 to run for the House of Representatives. With Democrats ascendant in the 109th Congress, Mr. Reyes was named to head the House Intelligence Committee. Despite a gaffe confusing Sunni and Shiite Islam early in his chairmanship, he's been an influential moderate voice, saying that while U.S. combat troops should leave Iraq, having "broken" the country, it's up to the U.S. to keep some support there.
What led you to a life of public service?
When I got out of the Army and went to work for the Border Patrol, I considered that public service. … I got into public service initially by accident, then really liked the combination of law enforcement and serving the public.
Where do Hispanic politicians fit in these days?
I think Hispanics may be considered as starting a lot slower than most, but I think we're generally building a good, solid foundation and going from there. We've got Bill Richardson who is, in my opinion, the most experienced candidate from both sides of the aisle and the first credible Latino presidential candidate. And in that sense, he's like a pathfinder for us. … But in the traditional sense, we stand on the shoulders of great men like Henry B. Gonzalez and [Edward] Roybal and so many others.
You represent a district in El Paso that straddles the border, and you voted against a border fence.
In my experience, I know that there are times and locations where fences or obstacles can work, but I thought at the time, and I think today, that it's absurd and a stupid idea to try and build a 700-mile fence, or a 300-mile fence. I believe very strongly that you ought to consult with the chiefs right there on the border.
And you're in favor of an "earned legalization program," or what some call an amnesty?
I'm one of those members of Congress who doesn't have any problem calling it an amnesty, legalization, regularization, a banana split, or whatever you want to call it. There are three elements that go into this comprehensive immigration reform. Border security is certainly the top concern. Legalization is another one because I think if we're going to make the shadow world manageable, we've got to give people a reason to want to come out of the shadows and to identify themselves and to put themselves on a path to being here legally. And, third, if we don't acknowledge that our economy would virtually tank if it weren't for undocumented workers throughout our economy ... well, we certainly need a guest-worker program.
Is America safer since 9/11?
We're safer in some respects, but what's frustrating to me is that six years since 9/11 we still have a Department of Homeland Security that hasn't yet found its footing. No. 2, I think we're living in a much more dangerous world with the situation that we have created in the Middle East in dealing primarily with Iraq but also with Afghanistan. No. 3, the issues that have not been prioritized by the administration in regards to nuclear proliferation are certainly a concern.
Do you see Iraq as a new Vietnam?
There are similarities, what I call situational similarities, to Vietnam. Obviously different enemy, different terrain, different political circumstances, and a very different culture, but certainly we have gotten ourselves into the same or similar situation as we did with Vietnam.
Now that you're in an oversight role, do you think our intelligence services are up to the challenges of an Iran, an Iraq, a North Korea, and all the rest?
Our intelligence agencies are certainly up to the challenge. They need support. They need oversight. We need the stability of a cohesive strategy of how we deal with whole regions of the world. We not only have the Middle East to worry about, we recently saw that we have some concerns with Russia, we have some threats over the horizon with the Horn of Africa, Somalia, and that region. We've got some concerns in Latin America with [Venezuela's Hugo] Chavez, and [Cuba's Fidel] Castro is still kicking around. Iraq and the Middle East have consumed practically all of our capability and all of our attention.
What are your future plans?
There was a lot of speculation [about a U.S. Senate run] back in 2002. I never seriously considered it. I think this job is plenty. I really like the job I have now.
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