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Gallardo demands McCain apologize over comments linking illegal immigrants to wildfires

Sen. Steve Gallardo demands an apology during an Aug. 25 press conference at the Capitol from U.S. Sen. John McCain about remarks he made implying that wildfires are started by illegal immigrants. (Photo by Jim Small)

Following the arrest of two U.S. citizens accused of starting the largest wildfire in Arizona history, Sen. Steve Gallardo demanded that U.S. Sen. John McCain apologize for comments he made that some wildfires in the state were started by illegal immigrants.

At a fiery press conference at the Capitol, Gallardo and a group of other immigrant and Latino rights advocates lambasted McCain for comments he made during a June 18 press conference in Springerville, after he, U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl and U.S. Reps. Jeff Flake and Paul Gosar finished touring damage caused by the Wallow Fire. McCain told reporters that “there is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally.”

Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said comments like the ones McCain made flame anti-Latino and anti-immigrant sentiment. He said it’s unfortunate that immigrants and Latinos are so often blamed “every time something bad goes on in the state of Arizona,” and noted that the U.S. Forest Service said at the time that there was no evidence that any of the wildfires burning in Arizona at the time had been started by illegal immigrants.

“Sen. John McCain should be held responsible for making these types of comments; Shame on him. Shame on him for making such a racially motivated comment without any evidence,” Gallardo said. “Sen. John McCain, you owe the people of the state of Arizona an apology. We think it’s right for you to set the record straight that illegal immigrants were not the cause of the Willow Fire, that this was set by two individuals who are U.S. citizens.”

Attorney Antonio Bustamante accused McCain of “pandering to the racists” and called for McCain to renew his past support for comprehensive immigration reform.

“We demand he return to his days of demonstrated integrity. We demand he go back to the time when he was known as the maverick who would stand up to forces and powers who were against others, a time when he was willing to have the courage to do the right thing, even though his party did not agree with him,” Bustamante said.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said the senator would not apologize. Rogers said McCain specified that he was not talking about the Wallow Fire and raised the issue only because he had been briefed shortly beforehand by U.S. Forest Service officials who told him that at least five previous Arizona wildfires fires had been linked to illegal immigrants.

“It’s absurd. It’s hard to apologize for saying something that’s true,” Rogers said. “This is some folks that want to play politics.”

At the Springerville press conference, McCain did not specify which fires may have been started by illegal immigrants and a spokeswoman later said he was not referring to the Wallow Fire. At the time, Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever and others had blamed illegal immigrants for starting other fires in southern Arizona.

Gallardo said McCain’s later clarifications were moot. The fact that McCain made the comments following a tour of the Wallow Fire area implied that he was referring to that blaze, Gallardo said.

“He did not specify which fire. He made a blanket accusation that illegal immigrants are causing these fires,” he said.

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