Hispanic Magazine
April 2001

Hispanic Caucus Has New Direction

By Ana Radelat

Representative Silvestre Reyes (center), flanked by Representative Rubén Hinojosa (left), and Representative Solomon Ortiz. All three are Texas Democrats.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus failed to grow in size, but it has a new purpose, political scope and leader. All 18 members are Democrats—its three Republican members quit the caucus a few years ago.
The new chairman of the group, Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) is a “new-style” Latino politician who has broken tradition by providing Hispanics in Congress with what may be their most conservative leader.

Until very recently, some of the most liberal members of Congress could be found in the Hispanic caucus, formed in the 1970s by a handful of Latino members seeking to increase their clout in Washington.

There hasn’t been a Hispanic U.S. Senator since Joseph Montoya of New Mexico left office in 1976. But the numbers of Latino House members grew steadily—especially after the Voting Rights Act redrew congressional district lines to encourage minority representation in Congress—until a few years ago.

Today’s caucus counts with a more diverse range of ideologies than ever before, even if it lacks GOP members, and Reyes’ election to lead the group reflects a broadening perspective among Latino lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Reyes, 56, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service agent and Vietnam veteran who was born in El Paso to Mexican American parents with 10 children, calls himself a political moderate. He was elected to represent a Hispanic-majority, Texas border district in Congress in 1995 after he became a local celebrity as El Paso’s chief border patrol agent.

Frustrated that undocumented Mexicans could easily cross the border, Reyes went against the Immigration and Naturalization Service procedure by instituting Operation Hold the Line, an effort to stop illegal migrants from entering the United States at the Rio Grande. The move stopped migrants and drew protests from Mexico’s government.

“Protecting our borders is not just a matter of controlling illegal immigration, it is about out national security,” Reyes said. “If we do not control our border we will not be able to control the threat of drug traffickers, organized crime and terrorist groups.”

In his new position, Reyes is trying to cultivate close relations with Mexico by meeting with President Vicente Fox and leading a delegation of members there.

But he also has protested proposals for a new guest worker program that both Fox and U.S. agri-business support. Reyes maintains that a new bracero program would open up new opportunities for exploitation of Mexican workers.

Yet Reyes is committed to fix some of the harshest measures in U.S. immigration law—including the forced deportation of legal migrants who have committed minor crimes. He also supports efforts to provide amnesty for thousands of illegal migrants who arrived in the United States before 1986.

When Reyes ran last year to succeed Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California) as head of the Hispanic Caucus, he promised several things. One was that the group would broaden its base of support to include members of the Latino business community. Second, he pledged to recruit and help Latino candidates by starting a new political action committee to help fund their campaigns.

“We raise thousands of dollars for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and they aren’t interested in having more Hispanics in Congress,” Reyes complained. “If we have an increase in our numbers, it’s purely accidental.”

The two newest members of the caucus, Representative Hilda Solís (D-California) and Delegate Anibal Acevedo Vila (D-Puerto Rico), are very different from their predecessors.

Acevedo Vila, 39, was a leader of Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party, which favors keeping the island’s commonwealth status. Vila, a passionate proponent of halting the U.S. military use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, hopes to convince Congress to abandon any thought of bringing the statehood issue up again.

Solís, 43, defeated longtime incumbent Matthew Martínez in a bitter political race last year. The Hispanic Caucus gave her no support, saying it did not want to play favorites in the race. But Solís says she holds no hard feelings: “We’re all getting along.” In fact, Solís was a member of the delegation that traveled to Mexico with Reyes.

Meanwhile, Reyes is trying to lure back the three House Republican Hispanics. Repre-sentative Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) has already rebuffed the overture, saying the caucus is too liberal. The two other Florida Republican members, Cuban American Representatives. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart are considering the invitation. They dropped out of the caucus after Representative Javier Becerra (D-California), then the leader of the group, visited Fidel Castro.

Reyes still has hopes of smoothing over relations with the Cuban-American lawmakers.

“I think they missed out on a lot of things,” he said. “Perhaps my moderate political philosophy will come in handy.”H
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus:
Silvestre Reyes, chair, D-TX
Ciro Rodríguez, 1st vice chair, D-TX
Grace Napolitano, 2nd vice chair, D-CA
Joe Baca, whip, D-CA
Solomon Ortiz, D-TX
José Serrano, D-NY
Ed Pastor, D-AZ
Xavier Becerra, D-CA
Luis Gutiérrez, D-IL
Robert Menéndez, D-NJ
Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-CA
Robert Underwood, D-Guam
Nydia Velázquez, D-NY
Ruben Hinojosa, D-TX
Loretta Sánchez, D-CA
Charles González, D-TX
Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, D-PR
Hilda Solís, D-CA