Clay Higgins

UNITED STATES - MAY 3: Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., descends the House Steps of the Capitol after a vote on May 3, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) 

WASHINGTON — Louisiana's GOP lawmakers led the charge on Capitol Hill to express support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and score political points over a handful of Democrats who've called for dismantling the agency.

First-term U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, a former sheriff's deputy, sponsored the non-binding resolution backing ICE and ridiculing the agency's opponents that passed the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly on Wednesday.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, helped take the lead on pushing the resolution in an effort to embarrass and split Democrats ahead of this fall's midterm elections. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, unsuccessfully attempted to pass a similar resolution in the U.S. Senate.

A number of Democrats denounced the votes as cheap political posturing by Republicans. The majority of House Democrats voted "present" on the resolution instead of taking a position.

"I want to remind everyone that Democrats have been strong on protecting our borders all along," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, who called Higgins' resolution a "political stunt." House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, called it "a sham and a distraction."

All five Louisiana Republicans in the House — Higgins, Scalise and Reps. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto; Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge; Mike Johnson, R-Bossier — voted for the petition. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, wasn't in the chamber Wednesday afternoon and didn't cast a vote.

Liberal activists have protested against ICE, seeing the agency as the prime instrument of President Donald Trump's tough crackdown on illegal immigration and one of the driving forces behind Trump's controversial zero-tolerance enforcement policies that have led to some asylum-seeking families being separated at the border.

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“The men and women of ICE are federal employees who do their jobs admirably. Unfortunately, however, they have to implement less than admirable decisions that are coming from the White House," Richmond said in a statement Wednesday. "The ICE resolution is just another way to distract the American people from the fact that separating children from their parents is inhumane and unjust," Richmond added.

A handful of Democrats had introduced legislation that would've rolled ICE's responsibilities into another federal law-enforcement agency, something backers claimed would focus resources on only the most dangerous immigrants. But other Democrats have worried calls to abolish ICE could alienate moderate voters.

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Higgins, Scalise and Kennedy, however, accused Democrats on Wednesday of refusing to support law enforcement. They also alleged liberals support "open borders," something most Democratic lawmakers deny.

"The campaign against ICE is the latest rallying cry for open borders, the latest call to prioritize illegal immigrants over American citizens, the latest shrill cacophony from the Left to vilify and demonize frontline law enforcement in America," Higgins said.

In the Senate, Kennedy and about three dozen Republicans — including fellow Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy — tried to pass Kennedy's version of the resolution but were blocked by the Democratic minority.

"This moment hardly seems the time for the Senate to engage in debating rhetorical phrases or praise for the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency when that agency (...) is deeply mired in the scandal of separating children from their parents," said Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Merkley and other Democrats instead urged Republicans to sign onto a bill by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, that'd reunite migrant children who'd been separated from their parents as a result of the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policies.

Republicans likewise refused.

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"ICE agents deserve our thanks. Instead, they are being exploited by Democrats for political gain," Kennedy said in a statement. "The losers are American families."

Wednesday's votes represent the latest jockeying over immigration, perhaps the most divisive national political issue. Trump campaigned on a tough crackdown on immigration, including promises to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump's moves to ramp up deportations, including of illegal immigrants without criminal records who've lived in the country for years, has stoked outrage among liberal activists and triggered protests in major cities.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.