WASHINGTON — Lawmakers clashed anew over immigration Wednesday as Senate Republicans pushed to introduce far-reaching new enforcement measures and California's senators led an impassioned plea to allow in more foreign agriculture workers.
The extended exchanges -- often tart, sometimes angry -- came during debate on the homeland security spending bill, creating new fault lines and deepening old ones.
At one point, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) objected when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to persuade the Senate to agree unanimously to a border enforcement measure without a roll-call vote. Reid accused Cornyn of impeding the measure for political reasons.
"It seems sometimes people like to have the issue rather than solving the issue," Reid said. "This [measure] would have gone a long ways toward easing the friction on both sides toward problems with immigration," he said. "It hasn't, and my friend ... still has an issue to talk about. Maybe that's more important to him than solving this problem."
Cornyn snapped back: "I thought we were getting along well until that last comment."
The measure in dispute was narrowly focused: It included funds for 700 miles of fencing, 300 miles of vehicle barriers, 23,000 Border Patrol agents, 105 ground-based radar sensors, and four unmanned planes.
In the end, no action was taken.
The sparring between Reid and Cornyn came just one month after the Senate failed to pass broad immigration legislation that would have granted citizenship to most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and added visas for high- and low-skilled workers.
The flare-up Wednesday started when Republican senators, describing the border as a national emergency on a par with Iraq, introduced an amendment that would have poured $3 billion into added fencing, technology and staffing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
It would have required mandatory jail time for people who overstayed their visas or reentered the country illegally after being deported. It also would have enabled new and far-reaching enforcement measures that Democrats opposed, giving police officers and hospital workers the power to inquire about anyone's immigration status and allowing the use of secret evidence to deny citizenship.
"What this amendment does is acknowledge the fact that what we have here is an emergency," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), one of the measure's nine Republican cosponsors. "It is as big and as important an emergency relative to national security as the war in Iraq. And I look at them as pretty much the same type of national emergency."
The GOP effort -- which was opposed by the White House -- ultimately failed. In the wake of the amendment's failure, Reid offered to bring just the border enforcement elements of the amendment to the Senate floor to be accepted unanimously.
Cornyn objected, arguing that without measures that target visa violators, Reid's compromise "completely overlooked and ignored 45% of the illegal immigration in this country caused by people who enter with a visa ... but then overstay."
The original enforcement amendment was the brainchild of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the original sponsors of the Senate immigration bill. During that debate, he argued that the only way to successfully overhaul immigration laws was to attack all aspects of the problem at the same time, from border enforcement to the need for migrant labor.
On Wednesday, Graham announced that the comprehensive approach had failed. "Just because it failed does not mean the problems posed by illegal immigration have gone away," he said. "We're now moving to Plan B."
That drew a tough rebuttal from one of Graham's former allies, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "This amendment does nothing to secure our nation and everything to tear it apart," Kennedy said in a statement.
He noted that previous enforcement policies had not worked. "We are merely endorsing 10 years of failed policies," he said. "The primary cause of undocumented immigration is not too little enforcement, but too few visas."
In the midst of the debate, it appeared that AgJobs, a five-year work program for farmworkers championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), might come up. When it was clear that would not happen, the senators appealed to their colleagues to consider the measure.
"American agriculture is now in crisis in part because we have failed to pass an immigration bill," Craig said, attributing the failure to "political intimidation" over the issue of "amnesty." He noted that farmers across the country were facing this harvest season with 35% underemployment and a projected $5 billion to $6 billion in losses.
"The catastrophe is now; the harvest is now," said Feinstein, looking tired and at times frustrated. She warned of California farmers who were moving their operations down to Mexico to avoid labor shortages, and the ensuing loss of farmland as it was left fallow or sold to developers.
She urged the Senate to consider AgJobs on its own or as part of the upcoming farm bill. "This bill is known by everybody in this body, and everyone in this body knows there is a need," she said.
But Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said he would object to considering AgJobs because under the program, laborers who met certain criteria would be allowed to get permanent resident visas, a step toward citizenship. "As long as it is truly a temporary-worker program and those individuals are required to go home, then we don't have a disagreement," he said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) rose after Chambliss had made his objections clear. "It's a crisis. We are losing farms, we are losing workers ... and it's just the start of this thing," Boxer said. "I hope we can all work ... to bypass some of the negativity we've heard tonight."