PHOENIX (AP) — Controversy over remarks by U.S. Sen. John McCain about illegal immigrants and wildfires flared again Thursday, as Hispanic politicians and activists reacted to the filing of federal charges accusing two U.S. citizens of accidentally starting the state's largest wildfire.
Current and former legislators and other Hispanic leaders said during a news conference that the McCain, an Arizona Republican, should apologize for saying in July that illegal immigrants have started "some fires."
Former state Rep. John Loredo, D-Phoenix, and others said McCain engaged in race-baiting at the time by not specifying after touring the Wallow Fire what fires he was talking about.
The filing of charges against the two men in southern Arizona in connection with the Wallow Fire proves that blanket statements linking illegal immigrants and wildfires amount to unfounded demonization, the activists said.
"He owes it to us to not spread fear and hate," said Daniel Ortega, a Phoenix attorney who is board chair of the National Council of La Raza, a national advocacy group.
McCain's office responded with a statement saying McCain wasn't referring to the Wallow Fire when he said "some fires" were started by illegal immigrants and smugglers to warm themselves or distract Border Patrol officers.
No apology is owed or coming because the Forest Service had told McCain during a briefing that illegal immigrants have started some fires along the border, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said.
"You can't apologize for something that's 100 percent true." Rogers said.
McCain's contention that illegal immigrants have started fires is supported by recent testimony to a congressional panel by a Forest Service official, Assistant Deputy Chief Jim Pena.
Pena said Forest Service investigations were able to identify individuals responsible in 31 of 457 human-caused fires from 2002-2011 in Coronado National Forest areas along the U.S.-Mexico-border.
"Of those 31 fires, it was determined that undocumented aliens were responsible for starting five," Pena said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office on Wednesday announced the filing of a criminal complaint accusing two cousins from Benson and Tucson of accidentally starting the Wallow Fire by leaving a campfire unattended.
Winds whipped the fire as it burned more than 538,000 acres in eastern Arizona and parts of western New Mexico, destroying 32 homes, four commercial structures and 36 outbuildings.
It cost more than $79 million to fight the blaze before firefighters and monsoon rains eventually put out the flames.