Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, whose re-election campaign is pressing for tighter immigration controls, referred to his house painter as "a nice little Guatemalan man" and suggested that worker as well as employees of a roofing company he hired might be in the country illegally.
"The other day, the little fella who does our maintenance work around the house, he's from Guatemala, and I said, 'Could I see your green card?'" Burns said at a June meeting recorded by Democrats. "And Hugo says, 'No.' I said, 'Oh gosh.'"
Burns spokesman Jason Klindt said the worker, Hugo Reyes, is legally in the United States, owns a painting company and the senator "never had any doubt" that Reyes is a legal resident.
"He was telling an anecdotal story about a time he took the extra step to make sure a worker was legal," Klindt said.
Burns, who voted against a Senate bill this year that would have offered millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship, also joked about the issue at a debate against his Democratic opponent, Jon Tester, earlier this year.
Burns said he was on the phone with his contractor when he saw an interview with an illegal immigrant on television. The immigrant said he was a roofer and was headed north.
"So I told my roofer, you better go out and get your help," Burns said. "Or you won't get my house roofed."
Burns' comments come on the heels of controversial remarks by Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who called a Democratic staffer of Indian descent "Macaca." Indian-American groups and others criticized Allen for his racially insensitive comments after a video was posted on the Internet.
A staffer for Allen's opponent, Democrat James Webb, caught that incident on tape. Likewise, Montana Democrats have been filming Burns as he campaigns across the state. In a video released by the Tester campaign this week, Burns is seen interrupting his own stump speech at a campaign event to take a cell phone call and then appears to speak to the painter.
"Hugo is a nice little Guatemalan man who is doing some painting for me ... in Virginia," Burns told the audience, to laughter, after hanging up on the call. "No, he's terrific, love him."
That event was Aug. 15, according to the Tester campaign. In audio tape from a June meeting also released by the Democrats, Burns is heard recounting the conversation in which he asked Reyes for his green card.
Matt McKenna, a spokesman for the Tester campaign, said that meeting was held at the headquarters of Family Service Inc., a Billings, Mont., charity for low-income families. The Democrats' videographer, Kevin O'Brien, sat in on the meeting and recorded it.
Conservatives and advocates for stricter immigration control said Burns crossed a line with his comments, even if they were said in jest.
"A U.S. senator hiring illegal immigrants is not a joke," said Michael Dougherty of The American Cause, a conservative group founded by Pat Buchanan that supports strict immigration controls. "He could easily dispirit his voting base."
"If you have the very people who are responsible for making the laws mocking them, it's a pretty good indication of why we have 12 million people breaking the law," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform. An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States.
Efforts to reach Reyes were unsuccessful. Klindt said he has been in the country for 30 years. He said the Democrats are "desperate" to take the focus off other campaign issues.
Burns has used the issue of immigration in a campaign ad.
"Burns votes against amnesty," the ad announcer says, referring to the Senate bill. "It gives illegals Social Security and tuition with your taxes."
Burns, 71, has had to apologize in the past for controversial comments.
In July, he confronted members of a firefighting team at the Billings airport and told them they had done a "piss-poor job," according to a state report. The Hotshot crew had traveled 2,000 miles from Staunton, Va., to help dig fire lines for about a week around a 143-square-mile wildfire east of Billings.
The crew was awaiting flights home when Burns made his comments. The senator, who has a house in Billings, said he was expressing the frustration of ranchers who were critical of the way the fire was handled. He later apologized.
In 1999, Burns issued a written apology after referring to Arabs as "rag heads" during a speech while commenting on oil prices.