The three-week old Wallow Fire in northern Arizona, which has burned over 500,000 acres, is the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Over the weekend, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) went back to their home state to tour the damage and give a press conference. At the conference, McCain blamed undocumented immigrants for setting the wildfires:
“There is substantial evidence that some of these fires are caused by people who have crossed our border illegally,” McCain, said at a press conference Saturday after touring the Wallow fire […]
“They have set fires because they signal others, they have set fires to keep warm, and they have set fires in order to divert law enforcement agents and agencies from them,” McCain said. “The answer to that part of the problem is to get a secure border.”
When he was asked which fires were started by immigrants, McCain couldn’t given an answer. A McCain spokesperson later told Salon’s Justin Elliott that “a Forest Service official” told McCain that “illegal immigrants” were involved in setting the fires. However, that directly contradicts what U.S. Forest Service spokesman Tom Berglund told ABC News yesterday:
When asked if there is substantial evidence that some fires were caused by undocumented immigrants, as McCain said at a news conference Saturday, Berglund said: “Absolutely not, at this level.”
“There’s no evidence that I’m aware, no evidence that’s been public, indicating such a thing,” he said.
Berglund said the fire was likely started by an “escaped campfire.”
This sort of unfounded accusation provides a sharp contrast with McCain’s previously moderate stance on immigration. He used to tell his aides he was disgusted by GOP demagoguing on the issue. “They’re going to destroy the party,” he once said of Republicans who bashed immigrants. However, McCain became more hawkish after his support of a comprehensive immigration reform package in 2007 with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) backfired and nearly cost him the Republican nomination in 2008. Right-wing groups threatened to “primary” McCain with a more conservative candidate if he did not change his tune.
He certainly has. His latest remarks have sparked an uproar. Immigrants’ rights groups are furious at McCain for scapegoating immigrants without any evidence at a time when people are looking for someone to blame. Angelo Falcon, the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, told CNN, “The degree of irresponsible political pandering by Sen. McCain has no limits. With the lack of evidence, he might as well also blame aliens from outer space for the fires.”