Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Arizona Fires Bring Out the Humanity of Illegal Immigrants

This weekend signs of progress in the border security/immigration debate could be found in the fires of 

These days, to keep hope alive, one needs to seek signs of progress in the most unlikely places.

Given the level of discourse in the state, where illegal border crossers are widely deigned alien creatures and threats to Americas’ national security, it was a welcome change to see that Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl publicly recognized them as humans.

It took an unprecedented rash of forest wildfires for Arizona leaders to wake up to the human condition of the Mexican border crossers.

McCain and other Arizona Republicans took their cue from the Forest Service. When talking with Senator McCain about the raging Wallow fire – the largest in Arizona’s history – Forest Service officials told the senator that this huge wildfire was of “human origin.”

Among McCain’s supporters, human is a synonym for citizen. But McCain, the seasoned politician that he is, seized this testimony from the Forest Service to advance his most popular talking point: Secure the Border.

Four years ago, commenting on the wildfires in southern California, blamed human-caused climate warming.
But that was before McCain became a border security hawk, and this was his own homeland under siege by wildfires.

No longer any thoughts about climate change, and no words of appreciation for the firefighters on the frontline before the advancing walls of flame. Instead, McCain blamed noncitizen humans.

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

Evidence and Speculation

What there is certainly is substantial speculation.  But, thus far, absolutely no evidence.

Earlier in the month, Bill Edwards, lead ranger at the Coronado National Forest, told the New York Times (June 2): “Sometimes you can find the true cause and other times you can’t.” Edwards, told a community meeting in southeast Arizona that the Horseshoe 2 Fire was caused by humans but that investigators had not determined who caused it. “Everything else is speculation.”

According to the NYT article, Edwards cited four other southern Arizona fires, all of them in known smuggling areas, which were found to have been caused by American citizens. One was caused by a rancher whose welding created a spark that ignited the dry underbrush, he said. Another was found to have been caused by target shooters. In two cases, he said, military aircraft engaged in training exercises set off fires.
“The automatic assumption is that it was an illegal immigrant,” Mr. Edwards said, acknowledging that migrants have been found to have caused wildfires by setting campfires to stay warm.
When announcing the closure of the Coronado Forest on June 7, the Forest Service did mention that immigrants, among other humans, were a possible cause of wildfires. According to Jim Upchurch, forest supervisor, officials decided a closure was necessary because "the great majority, if not all the fires, on the Coronado National Forest (this year) have been human-caused. Causes of fires include ricocheting bullets, campfires, welding equipment and possibly ignition by smugglers or illegal immigrants.”

A week before McCain offered his “Secure the Border” solution to forest fires, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified in a Senate hearing: “Throughout the country, we’re seeing longer fire seasons, and we’re seeing snowpacks that, on average, are disappearing a little earlier every spring,” he said, as well as devastating droughts. As a result, fire seasons have lengthened by more than 30 days, on average.”

"Our scientists believe this is due to a change in climate," said Tidwell.

Tom Berglund, spokesman for the federal group managing the Wallow fire that McCain toured Saturday, said, according to news reports, that the cause of the fire has been determined as "human," specifically an "escaped campfire," meaning the campfire sparked beyond the confines of the rocks containing it.
Two "subjects of interest" have been spoken to, but as of now, no suspect has been named, Berglund said. When asked if there is substantial evidence that some fires were caused by illegal immigrants, as McCain said at a news conference Saturday, Berglund said: "Absolutely not, at this level."
"There's no evidence that I'm aware, no evidence that's been public, indicating such a thing," he said.
Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the Coronado National Forest, when asked about McCain's claim, issued this statement: "The causes of the fires have not been determined. They are currently under investigation. Until investigations are complete we will not speculate on the causes."
Mexican Humans Can Set Fires
It is quite possible that illegal immigrants or Mexican drug smugglers were the cause of one or more of the Arizona fires. Since the mid-1990s and especially since 2005, the remote stretches of mountains and deserts in southeast Arizona have become favored routes for those entering the country illegally, including those carrying backpacks laden with marijuana.

But rather than to recognize that this is another opportunity to seek policy reforms that address the havoc caused by the country’s drug prohibition and immigration laws, as well as our absence of legislation to address climate change, the wildfires have ignited the usual vitriol, conspiracy theories, and scapegoating among border security hawks like McCain and anti-immigration groups like the Center for Immigration Studies.

For many, the Forest Service’s refusal to back up McCain is yet more evidence of a big government conspiracy and the power of the open-borders lobby on the East Coast.

Jerry Kammer of the Center for Immigration Studies lent credence to the conspiracy theorists in his blog post: “Arizona Fires: Too Hot for the Feds to Handle?” Asking that question, Kammer pointed approvingly to the journalism of Leo Banks of the Tucson Weekly:

For at least two years now, Arizona journalist Leo W. Banks has been writing and speaking about the strange silence of the federal government on the connection between forest fires in southern 

Arizona and the smugglers of drugs and human beings.
Banks has contrasted the widespread public belief that the fires are caused by the smugglers – either accidentally or in an effort to distract the Border Patrol – with the refusal of federal officials to address the issue.

"They won't talk about it. They'll say it’s human-caused, under investigation," Banks said at the June 3 luncheon hosted by CIS where he received the Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in Coverage of Immigration.

Addressing the politics of the issue, Banks added, "I think word has come down from Washington not to talk about it. Acknowledging that you have smuggler fires of this magnitude sort of messes up your message of border security."

CIS director Mark Krikorian, also citing the incendiary journalism of Banks, wrote in a National Review online column, titled “Sympathy for McCain”:
But the authorities are unwilling to discuss in public the possibility that a politically favored group (illegal aliens and smugglers) might have caused the fires -- kind of like the unwillingness to identify the religious tradition that Europe’s rioting "youths" belong to.
What the federal authorities are unwilling to do is spread speculation and enter into conspiracy theory world of the border security hawks and anti-immigration policy institutes.

Leo Banks, like Lou Dobbs, a previous winner of the CIS journalism award, specializes in the kind of narrowly focused, exaggerated, and mean-spirited views of the immigration and border issues that are the hallmark of the Center for Immigration Studies.

See, for example, his over-the-top article “Trashing Arizona” in which he reports that trash dumping by illegal immigrants is “devastating the environment.”  Images of the trash dumps “should be beamed around the country so everyone can understand Arizona's crucible.”  

Yes, the trash is ugly and not good for the environment. But environmental devastation and Arizona’s crucible it’s not.

Trash-talking about Mexicans has become a state sport in Arizona. However, by putting immigrants into the same human category as Arizona citizens, McCain’s scapegoating may help elevate the discourse.

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