Many doubtful that migrants responsible for most Ariz. wildfires

Many doubtful that migrants responsible for most Ariz. wildfires

25 November 2011

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USA — In a report released this week by the Government Accountability Office, the agency claims that forty percent of wildfires started on federal land in Southern Arizona are caused by undocumented border crossers. However, many critical of the attribution of wildfires to Latino immigrants are pointing out the study’s copious faults.

Earlier this year, when Ariz. Sen. John McCain first stated his claim that many Arizona wildfires are caused by undocumented immigrants, he was criticized by those who argued he had no facts with which to back up this argument. Therefore, it seems to some perhaps too coincidental that only a few short months later, McCain himself released the official report by the GAO, a congressional agency, proving the Senator’s dubious argument.

Despite some news outlets claiming vindication for McCain, there may be a bevy of reasons to doubt the veracity of the GAO study. Most notably, the Senator’s conclusion that a large percentage of wildfires are started by undocumented immigrants is based on an impossibly miniscule sampling of the total number of wildfires reported within 100 miles of the Arizona-Sonora border. The GAO studied only seventy-seven wildfires, determining thirty were started by migrants. In total, there were 2,500 reported wildfires in the region. This means that although McCain is claiming that forty percent of Southern Arizona fires are caused by border crossers, at most the GAO study could potentially prove a link between undocumented immigrants and 1.2 percent of all local wildfires.

According to the norms of statistical analysis, if the GAO study did in fact effectively link border crossers to between thirty-six and forty-four percent of Southern Arizona wildfires, it would be expected that such a study would sample around 500 fires. Therefore, it is particularly strange that anyone would draw any sort of conclusion at all from a study that so vastly and improbably strays from the typical standards of statistics.

Still, regardless of the problems related to the study’s practically invisible sample size, there are additional concerns regarding how Arizona’s wildfires are investigated in the first place. Sometimes it is determined that a fire was caused by undocumented border crossers if investigators find discarded items at the scene with Spanish language labels. Other times, a fire may be linked to migrants simply by the fact that it was started in an area known to be frequented by smugglers and border crossers. In fact, neither of these factors should conclusively prove a link between fires and immigrants.

Unfortunately, this study, regardless of how tragically flawed it may be, will no doubt be used by those who seek to further demonize undocumented immigrants in Arizona. In fact, Sen. McCain has already inferred from the report that the actual number of fires started by border crossers in Southern Arizona must be much higher than the GAO study immediately reveals.

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