John McCain’s attempt to blame illegal immigrants for the wild fires raging in Arizona is only the latest attempt by the Republican Senator to scapegoat immigrants for America’s border problems and to distance himself from his one-time role as the Senate?s most visible champion of comprehensive immigration reform
But it’s also monstruous hypocrisy.
Unbeknown to most Americans, anywhere from one-third to one-half of the contract workers who perform the grueling and dangerous work of fighting wildfires out West are the very illegal immigrants that McCain now chooses to blame for starting these fires.
The former 2008 presidential candidate, whose staff claims expertise on illegal immigration, is surely well aware of this fact, which is also well known in the firefighting industry. But it’s received only limited reporting in the mainstream press, which generally focuses on illegal immigrants in other indistries.
According to a 2006 report by the US Forest Service, illegal immigrants have been involved in fire-fighting nationwide for several decades. But their involvement has spiked dramatically since 2001 when unusually large wild fires began raging out of control in California. The federal government, facing budget cuts, quickly realized that it didn’t have enough native-born workers available to man the fire lines. So, in a classic case of “deniable” out-sourcing, it turned to private contractors to find willing recruits.
And just as illegal immigrants have readily filled other dangerous low-pay jobs that many native-born workers refuse, undocumented workers from Mexico, some of them moonlighting from their seasonal fruit-picking jobs, soon stepped in to fill the fire-fighting void – and they’ve basically never left.
The issue of Mexican immigrant workers has drawn considerable attention inside the nation’s fire-fighting community, but not because of their legal status. On the contrary, many fire-fighting officials say they’re far more concerned about growing language and cultural barriers among their crews that could undermine their effectiveness in the field. Firefighting often require split second decision making, and unless all crew members fully understand their roles and can respond and communicate quickly, additional lives and property can be lost.
Oregon, in fact, is in the forefront of a growing number of states that have created special certification programs for contract firefighters that include bilingual language and safety training. While in most cases it is Latino firefighting personnel who are required to learn English, pressure is also growing on native-born crew chiefs to become bilingual. In fact, some states have even mandated that crew chiefs agree to speak the predominant language of their crew?be it English or Spanish – or risk being fired.
Since most wild-land firefighters – unlike their municipal counterparts – are not public-sector workers, there are no trade unions or firefighter?s associations in place to push for better wages and benefits, monitor occupational safety. or when tragedy strikes, to ensure a proper burial, Pay is as low as $10 an hour and, at the height of the season, workers must endure grueling 100-hour shifts. Some fail to complete their contracts due to fatigue or illness. But immigrants, especially, are just glad to have the extra source of income, which helps support their families back home.
The use of private contractors, which is also widespread in the recruiting of illegal agricultural laborers, has also made it easier for the federal government to look the other way. While nominally responsible for checking on the legal status of the workers they recruit, contractors aren’t closely monitored or audited. And even with the growing federal crackdown on illegal immigration, which includes stepped-up company audits by the Obama administration in industries with high concentrations of illegal immigrants, like apparel and food service, no one has suggested going after the fire-fighting industry in a big way.
Why would they? Wild fires are hugely unpredictable, and a steady labor supply is critical. The fires not only damage fragile ecosystems, but can cause enormous property damage, usually estimated in the billions. Of course, the biggest property losers aren?t working stiffs residing in crowded cities or suburbs, but high-rollers with the resources to build expensive homes nestled deep into wilderness forests and canyons, or perched atop desert plateaus with spectacular vistas – precisely the areas most immediately vulnerable to blazes.
In Arizona, many of those wealthy homeowners are undoubtedly John McCain supporters. Some probably chuckle at the Senator’s’ latest ugly descent into the cesspool of right-wing “restrictionism.”
That is, as long as he and his colleagues look the other way during the dry summer months when their homes and property – and their very lives, in fact – could well hang in the balance, were it not for the efforts of these undocumented – and unheralded – “first-responders.”
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org