published Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

John McCain’s claims are off the mark

Sen. John McCain’s weekend claim that there is “substantial evidence” that illegal immigrants are responsible for setting some of the massive wildfires that have seared more than 800 square miles of Arizona is without foundation. That he would make and defend the statement strongly suggests that the self-proclaimed political “maverick” has sold out and gone over to the other side. He’ll say anything, it seems, to please the immigrant-bashing, conservative base of the Republican Party.

The Arizonan wasn’t always so self-serving. Many Americans remember a more independent and principled McCain — the man who joined the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who was anathema to GOP conservatives, to promote comprehensive immigration reform. McCain took a lot of heat from his party for doing so, but refused to back down. The bipartisan effort to make meaningful changes to the law, he said at the time, was the right thing to do.

There’s nothing right about McCain’s current claim that some of the wildfires in Arizona “have been caused by people who crossed our border illegally.” Officials do say that the three major Arizona fires apparently are the result of human activity,. They were careful to say, though, that it is unknown whether illegal immigrants were involved. Indeed, no public agency or official has produced evidence that would substantiate McCain’s charge.

That’s not deterred the senator. On Tuesday, he remained adamant, saying he was “puzzled” by those who question his claim and his motives. He implied, in fact, that until his state’s border with Mexico is secured, the problem of fires and a host of other problems will remain. McCain’s wrong about that, too.

While the border might not be completely secure, it is far more secure than it has been in the past. Policies put in place during the George W. Bush administration and since enhanced by the Obama administration have significantly reduced the number of illegal border crossings. The result is dramatic.

The addition of hundreds of agents, the building of physical barriers and the deployment of a vast network of high-tech devices to detect and track illegals has proved effective. Officials say illegal border crossings have been reduced by half since 2005.

McCain should know that — he’s been briefed often enough in Washington about such matters — but he’s loath to acknowledge the facts.

Wild claims about a porous border and illegal aliens causing fires and other mischief find a far more receptive audience than the truth with the voters McCain feels he must court. The senator’s willingness to demagogue illegal immigrants and to pander to the basest elements of his party distort the truth and promote hateful, racist talk. His statement about the fires demeans a man whose name once was synonymous with political integrity and straight talk.

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