Sen. John McCain said today that he's "not sure what all this controversy is about" surrounding his unsubstantiated claim that illegal immigrants caused some of the wildfires raging across eastern Arizona.
Cochise Co. "Sheriff Larry Dever will tell you that the Monument Fire was started when the park, the forest was closed. So anyone who was in there is illegal," McCain said in an interview on "Good Morning America."
McCain also said that his assessment -- that there is "substantial evidence" illegal immigrants are responsible for "some of these fires" -- was based on a briefing Saturday from a U.S. Forest Service official familiar with the investigation of the fires.
"This is the toughest year in Arizona's history as far as fires are concerned," McCain said. "The fact is that as far back as 2006 the Forest Service testified before Congress, and I quote, 'Large numbers of warming and cooking fires built and abandoned by cross border violators have caused wildfires that have destroyed valuable natural and cultural resources.'"
But a spokesman for the agency said Monday that while the latest wildfires appear to be "human caused" there is no evidence that the suspects may have been illegal immigrants.
Immigrant advocates and civil rights groups have accused McCain of politicizing the fires at a time when people are losing their homes and struggling to cope with widespread evacuations.
"The sad thing is that the intention was pretty clear," said Clarissa Martinez with the National Council of La Raza. "It was to demonize immigrants and demonize Latinos."
Randy Parraz, a civil rights advocate who ran unsuccessfully against McCain as a Democratic candidate in 2010, was quick to criticize McCain's comments, calling them "careless and reckless."
"It's easier to fan the flames of intolerance, especially in Arizona," Parraz said.
McCain insists the issue of immigrant involvement in the fires was first raised by a questioner during a press conference Saturday, and that he responded with information provided to him by Forest Service officials.
"This is an old issue," McCain said in an interview Monday. "The Forest Service testified in 2006 before Congress that there were fires that were set by illegal immigrants. And the issue has been there ever since ... it's well known this is a significant problem."
"I regret it if some group or individual wants to insert another issue into this debate," he said. "I'm so proud of the work that's being done and obviously some of the problem has been caused by fires set by illegal immigrants and we ought to address it just as we have requested a couple months ago, six members of the Senate, for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office."
Forest Service spokesman Tom Berglund said there is no evidence that one of the ongoing fires -- the so-called Wallow Fire -- were started by illegal immigrants. "Subjects of interest" have been spoken to, but as of now, no suspect has been named, he said.