Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) issued an apology for referring to workers as… (Dan Joling, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — One of the longest-serving House Republicans apologized Friday for using the term "wetbacks" to describe the migrant workers his family once employed in California, calling it "insensitive" and saying, "There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words."
The comment by Rep. Don Young of Alaska, which drew a rebuke from the House speaker and others, flies in the face of his party's efforts to improve its appeal to minority groups, particularly Latinos.
In an interview Thursday, Young, 79, was discussing how advances in technology had reduced the need for some types of workers, and referred to his family's farm in the Sacramento Valley. "My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes," he told KRBD-FM, a public radio station in Ketchikan. "It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine."
The statement drew wide condemnation, even with lawmakers scattered around the country for a two-week recess. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement strongly denouncing it, saying: "Congressman Young's remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds. I don't care why he said it — there's no excuse and it warrants an immediate apology."
Young first issued a response that explained his use of the word, but did not apologize for it. "I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California. I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays, and I meant no disrespect," he said.
The term "wetback," which arose because some illegal immigrants entered the U.S. by swimming or wading across the Rio Grande, was once common. In 1954, the federal government launched a deportation drive called Operation Wetback, aimed primarily at Mexicans who crossed illegally. But the word has long been considered a slur.
Friday afternoon, the congressman apologized in a second statement. He also acknowledged that his comment undercut the GOP's hope to win over Latinos through a bipartisan plan to legalize the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. "That word," Young said, "and the negative attitudes that come with it, should be left in the 20th century, and I'm sorry that this has shifted our focus away from comprehensive immigration reform."
Less than two weeks ago, the Republican National Committee released a detailed election postmortem that dissected the party's weaknesses, noting that "many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country" and calling on the GOP to "demonstrate we care about them too."
"The words used by Rep. Young emphatically do not represent the beliefs of the Republican Party," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said. "Offensive language and ethnic slurs have no place in our public discourse."
Among his constituents in Alaska, where Young is the only House member, his willingness to take on the perceived excesses of the federal government has long outweighed his reputation as irascible. But Michael Carey, a columnist and former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, noted that Young had not previously drawn such pointed criticism from national GOP leaders.
"Typically, people have always said, 'Oh, that's Don Young.' He's treated like the weather — you can't do anything about it," Carey said. "He says things that are stupid or offensive, but people say, 'He defends our 2nd Amendment rights, he fights the federal government. He's been in 40 years, defending our principles.'"
Lance Pruitt, a Republican and the majority leader in the Alaska House, said he had to look up "wetback" when he read about Young's statement. "There's over 100 different languages in the Anchorage school district. I grew up with kids of all sort of races, colors and creeds, and I didn't realize there was an issue there," he told reporters Friday. "So when a comment like that comes up that was a derogatory comment in the past, I had to search for what it even meant.... The Alaska I know recognizes the diversity that we have here."
Democrats wasted little time seeking to highlight the GOP's latest misstep. In the 2012 election, Republicans were tripped up when candidates made statements on rape that dented the party's image.
Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called it "deeply disheartening" that a member of Congress would use "such hateful words and racial slurs."
"Rep. Young says that he was just using the language he was accustomed to as he grew up, but there is no excuse for ignorance. He has served alongside Hispanics in Congress since 1973, so he should know terms like 'wetback' have never been acceptable," he said. "As the Republican minority outreach efforts develop, I'd advise their strategists to list 'don't say racial slurs like "wetback"' as a bedrock for their messaging."
Memoli reported from Washington and Murphy from Seattle.