The Democratic Senate nominee's proposal is similar to the one Cornyn opposed last year
By R.G. RATCLIFFE
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Aug. 7, 2008, 12:29AM
AUSTIN — Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Rick Noriega unveiled an immigration reform plan Wednesday that is very similar to a measure that died last year largely because of opposition from Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.
Noriega touted his plan as a "bold" measure to fix a "broken" immigration system, but it was almost identical to bipartisan legislation that had been backed by President Bush and Texas business leaders in June 2007.
"Without question we know as a matter of fact that Mr. Cornyn was an obstructionist on the last debate on comprehensive immigration reform," Noriega said. "He hasn't done anything in six years to help reform immigration."
Cornyn's campaign described the Noriega plan as "obviously written by inside-the-beltway liberals."
A path to citizenship
Noriega's plan opposes border fences and proposes a crackdown on businesses that hire illegal workers, but it also includes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States.
Cornyn, who is being challenged in his re-election bid by Noriega, was blamed by labor unions and immigration groups for killing the bipartisan bill last year through obstructionism. Cornyn called that a "bald-faced lie" and blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for killing debate on the bill by not allowing Republican amendments.
During a backroom discussion on the bill, Sen. John McCain of Arizona used profanity to describe Cornyn's opposition. McCain, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, later described the exchange as a "frank and open" discussion.
Noriega described his plan as a solution to Washington gridlock. Noriega said he had not seen an analysis of his plan and the bipartisan legislation. He said his plan arose from his work as the National Guard's Laredo sector commander in Operation Jumpstart and as chairman of the Texas House task force on border security.
"We're worse off both as a state and as a country for not having comprehensive immigration reform. We are less safe. The border is not as secure as it should be," Noriega said.
Technology would be used
His plan opposes a border fence, relying instead on surveillance and technology to stop illegal immigration. Noriega called a border fence a "gimmick" and proposed increased technology and the hiring of 18,000 new border agents. He also said there is a need for Operation Jumpstart II, with the National Guard supporting the Border Patrol.
Cornyn campaign spokesman Kevin McLaughlin said Noriega in a 2006 interview said putting military personnel on the border was "more of a political exercise than a security exercise" and that Noriega called it "fluff."
McLaughlin said the number of Border Patrol agents has grown from 9,000, before Cornyn was elected in 2002, to 15,500 last March. McLaughlin also said presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama voted for the fence that Noriega opposes.
Noriega also favors a crackdown on businesses that employ undocumented workers. His plan includes hiring an unspecified number of new agents to police businesses that hire undocumented workers.
As to the estimated 11.5 million immigrants in the country illegally, Noriega said his plan is "a realistic solution, forcing the individuals already here to come out of the shadows."
That was tough rhetoric for a plan to allow those here illegally to stay only if they learn English, pay fines and back taxes and get on the path to citizenship — proposals similar to those championed in the bipartisan legislation by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Many Republicans, including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, called the proposal amnesty for illegal immigrants.