ROCK — A state senator tearfully apologized last Thursday for an e-mail
he wrote that said “we are being outpopulated by the blacks” and
claimed illegal immigrants have overrun Arkansas.
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) called on Arkansas State Sen. Denny Altes to step down from office over the e-mail he sent to former Fort Smith Mayor Bill Vines. Altes said he didn’t consider his comments racist.
“I apologize and I am sorry if it hurt anyone’s feelings. … I’m sorry if it offended anyone, but I didn’t consider it a racist remark,” Altes, who is white, told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Altes, R-Fort Smith, wrote in the e-mail that, “I am for sending the illegals back but we know that is impossible.” He also defended his efforts in 2005 to oppose a measure that would have given scholarships to the children of illegal immigrants.
“We are where we were with the black folks after the Revolutionary War,” Altes wrote. “We can’t send them back and the more we [anger them] the worse it will be in the future. … Sure we are being overrun but we are being outpopulated by the blacks also.”
Dennis Milligan, the chairman of the state GOP, had criticized the lawmaker for his comments.
“They are disrespectful and denigrating to the practical concerns of how we truly address illegal immigration,” Milligan said in a statement released by the party before Altes’ apology.
The chairman of the state Democratic Party also called Altes’ remarks divisive and said he was pleased the lawmaker, an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, apologized.
“I hope his future public policy decisions reflect his atonement,” Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Bill Gwatney said.
Altes, who is also the Senate minority leader, said he was responding to an inflammatory e-mail. When asked whether he regretted making the comments or the public release of his e-mail, he responded, “all of the above.”
“I was mad and I shouldn’t have said anything I said. I shouldn’t have made those comparisons,” Altes said.
Altes tearfully apologized again for the e-mail in an interview later last Thursday.
“It just hurts me that anybody would be hurt by what I’ve said. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody’s feelings,” Altes said. “People who know my heart know I love my people and love my job and I just want to do it right.”
Gov. Mike Beebe criticized Altes’ remarks, and a spokesman said the Democratic governor was glad to see an apology for the e-mail.
“Controversial topics require level-headed, civil discussion, not divisive and insensitive remarks, such as those made by Senator Altes,” Beebe said in a statement released by his office.
Altes has served in the Legislature since 1999, when he was elected to the House. He served two terms there and has been a member of the state Senate since 2003.
In 2005, Altes co-sponsored unsuccessful legislation that would have required proof of legal status when applying for state services that aren’t federally mandated, and proof of citizenship when registering to vote.
LULAC, which opposed Altes’ 2005 legislation, called for Altes’ resignation. Altes said he doesn’t plan to step down.
“I hope some of his legislators here in the Capitol look at him and say what are you thinking about,” said Carlos Cervantes, state director of LULAC. “Why would you say something like that even in a whisper?”
State Senate President Jack Critcher said he spoke with Altes last Thursday and said he didn’t believe the e-mail indicated any racist feelings or bigotry on Altes’ part.
“I think he feels as badly as anyone could feel about those comments and they were not what he was feeling in his heart,” Critcher said.
Critcher said he believed Altes needed to apologize to everyone in the state over his remarks.
“I think people who know him as well as I do will accept that at face value and those who don’t know him that well will have a much harder time accepting his apology as being sincere,” Critcher said.