Immigration debate heats up over McCain's fiery remarks

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) this weekend linked the fires that have raged across the Southwest in recent weeks to another hot issue — illegal immigration. The senator’s straightforward remarks — he said undocumented immigrants have been known to intentionally start such fires — have since drawn both support and censure, but the former presidential candidate hasn’t revised a word of them.

Appearing at a weekend news conference, Mr. McCain said that illegal immigrants “have set fires because they wanted to signal others …. and they have set fires because they wanted to divert law enforcement agencies.”

On Tuesday, Mr. McCain said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show he was “puzzled” by the firestorm that has erupted after his remarks.

“We know that people who come across our border illegally … that these fires are sometimes, some of them, caused by this,” he said. Mr. McCain added, “I’m puzzled … that there should be any controversy.” He said he was merely repeating information he’d been given during a briefing with federal officials, including the U.S. Forest Service, before he appeared at the news conference.

Critics of McCain’s comments, including the Phoenix-based Hispanic civil rights group Somos America and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), claim he’s making a scapegoat of illegal immigrants, but Arizona Republicans Sen. John Kyl and Rep. Paul Gosar defended McCain, saying they, too, had received information to suggest undocumented workers have started such fires in the past and might even have had something to do with the most recent sequence.

Officials have linked three recent fires in Arizona to human activity, but it’s not clear whether a connection exists between the fires and immigrants in the country illegally.

Either way, the fuss reflects just how touchy the issue of illegal immigration has become. States across the country, from Oklahoma to Alabama, have taken steps this spring to secure their borders and Georgia’s set to become the next battleground.

McCain cited border security as a top priority in his recent comments — and, indeed, increased border security would render moot this debate about whether any of those who cross the border illegally ever intentionally ignite wildfires.

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

That’s what the American people want, as well. According to a poll released yesterday by Rasmussen Reports, 64 percent of likely U.S. voters say border security should be the top priority when it comes to immigration policy.

That’s not to say Americans don’t support immigration: The same poll shows 61 percent of those likely voters favor a welcoming immigration policy. That is, the majority believes the goal of U.S. immigration policy should be only to keep out national security threats, criminals and those who come here to live off our welfare system. Beyond that, all immigrants should be welcome.

McCain’s remarks make a scapegoat of undocumented workers only if he made them up. If the comments were rooted in credible information, which all indications suggest they were, then they were a responsible mention of yet another way a breakdown in border security leaves states vulnerable to criminals. I believe strongly that it’s possible and indeed necessary to talk about the negative aspects of illegal immigration — the threat it poses to the rule of law, the security risks of a weak border — while still respecting the personhood of immigrants, many of whom have found themselves one-time rule-breakers who now live in a shadowland of uncertainty themselves. The American people have the formula exactly right: Increased border security + a generally welcoming immigration policy = the right balance to strike.