The Arizona Wildfires, McCain, National Council of La Raza, and Univision

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on June 21, 2011

The issue of who or what has caused devastating fires in Arizona's borderlands obviously should be pursued vigorously, with due care not to tie it unfairly to the issue of illegal immigration. Sen. John McCain didn't advance that effort on Saturday when he offered no substance to support his claim that some of the fires are caused by illegal immigrants.

"There is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally," McCain said Saturday at a press conference. "The answer to that part of the problem is to get a secure border."

McCain offered no evidence. But as this blog has noted, there is evidence to support the suspicion, and Arizona journalists Leo Banks and Brady McCombs have questioned the apparent lack of vigor in the ongoing investigation by federal authorities.

Regarding the fire burning in the Huachuca Mountains near the city of Sierra Vista, McCombs noted that there had been no lightning in the area and that "the the Coronado National Forest had been closed to visitors since June 9 at noon – three full days before the fire started."

From my own work in Arizona, I know that Forest Service officials and Border Patrol agents in the field have said privately that fires have been deliberately set on trails used primarily by smugglers of illegal immigrants or illegal drugs. They say that sometimes the fires are set to heat a meal or provide warmth, then get out of control. Five years ago, Tina J. Terrell of the Forest Service testified before Congress that smugglers "intentionally set diversion or rescue fires, using uncontrolled wildfires to divert law enforcement from their illegal activities."

But on Saturday, McCain offered nothing beyond his allegation. Into that factual void rushed a flood of criticism from immigrant advocates, including one who said McCain wasn't just attacking immigrants.

"The sad thing is that the intention was pretty clear, and it was to demonize immigrants and to demonize Latinos," Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza told ABC news.

Yesterday, as he faced criticism for unfairly blaming illegal immigrants, McCain finally noted Terrell's congressional testimony. Unfortunately, that information didn't make it onto Univision's evening newscast. There anchorman Jorge Ramos introduced the story with this sweeping exaggeration of McCain's comments: "Arizona Republican Senator John McCain accused the undocumented who cross the border of being the cause of the fires in that state."

Then reporter Luis Megid began the story with this: "They are accused of taking jobs from the North Americans, of using and abusing public services, of increasing crime in the entire country. And as if all this weren't enough, now the undocumented are accused of something else."

Thus far this issue has generated plenty of heat and plenty of smoke. Let's hope that federal authorities, whose diligence in pursuing the investigation has been questioned, provide some candor and fact.

Topics: UnidosUS