Opinion Columns & Blogs

John McCain's burning words

Once upon a time, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was one of the few nationally known Republicans whose M.O. did not include bashing illegal immigrants for possible electoral gain. But spooked by the xenophobia rampant in the GOP's base, McCain has joined his party's mainstream in race-baiting, immigrant-hating rhetoric.

Over the weekend, he cited "substantial evidence" that some of the wildfires that have ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres in Arizona this month "have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally."

In fact, there is not even a shred of evidence of this. And in trying to defend himself Monday, McCain made that very point. He issued an explanatory memo that makes clear that his assertion was based on absolutely nothing.

"For years," said the statement, attributed to McCain's communications director, "federal, state and local officials have stated that smugglers and illegal immigrants have caused fires on our southern border."

Ah, the old "for years" dodge.

The release quotes various officials (one from 2006) as offering a variety of explanations for fires past and present, including the possibility that some may have been set as diversions by illegal border-crossers.

And the "substantial evidence" that the current, hugely destructive fires were set by illegal immigrants? Well, not so much. On Sunday, a U.S. Forest Service official told CNN that the blaze was probably caused by an "escaped campfire" — and that there was no reason to think illegal immigrants were behind it.

For months, McCain has been insisting that sweeping immigration reform (of the sort he championed back before his party turned on him because of it) is impossible until the border is secure. He said the same thing last weekend.

But as McCain has been told repeatedly by the Border Patrol and other agencies, the frontier with Mexico is now more secure and less porous than it has been in years, thanks to huge additions of agents and resources initiated by President Bush and sustained by President Obama. Illegal crossings are down dramatically, and in many sectors, bored agents patrol terrain where crossers are few and far between. Illegal crossings have been cut in half since 2005.

But McCain hates to be bothered by the facts. For him, it's politically expedient, and safer, to hew to the Republican orthodoxy, which prefers to paint the border as out of control. But by appeasing the xenophobes in the Republican base, McCain and Co. are fanning the flames of racial hatred in the Southwest and beyond. And there really is substantial evidence of that.