March 29th, 2013
08:05 AM ET
5 years ago

Alaska Rep. Don Young walks back 'wetbacks'

(CNN) – Longtime Alaska Rep. Don Young, 79, attempted to clarify Thursday his use of the derogatory term "wetbacks" to describe immigrant workers in an interview earlier this week.

"I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California," the Republican congressman said in a statement issued to a local television station in Anchorage. "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."

Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week. Talking about how technology is affecting the economy, he referenced an anecdote from his family's farm in California.

"My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes," Young said. "It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine."

The word is widely considered an ethnic slur and generally refers to those from Mexico who come to the United States illegally by crossing the Rio Grande River.

The 21-term congressman later issued the statement, which didn't come as a full apology but sought to explain his reasoning behind using the word. The word was used by the U.S. government in the 1950s for "Operation Wetback," a massive crackdown on illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Young's comments come at a time when the Republican Party is attempting to rebrand itself and expand its outreach to various minority groups, chief among them are Latinos.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, blasted Young in a statement, saying migrant workers come to the country for work and opportunities, not to "hear ethnic slurs and derogatory language from elected officials."

"The comments used by Rep. Young do nothing to elevate our party, political discourse or the millions who come here looking for economic opportunity," he continued.

GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana focused on the impact of damaging comments earlier this year, when he said at the Republican National Committee winter meeting that the GOP has "to stop being the stupid party" and should start talking "like adults."

"It's no secret we've had a number of Republicans this year damage our brands with bizarre and offensive comments," he said. "I'm here to say we've had enough of that."

- CNN's Ashley Killough, Steve Brusk, Peter Hamby and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

Filed under: Alaska • Don Young
soundoff (274 Responses)
  1. James Bond

    What he is sayimg is he has never respected them enough to refer to them with dignity, that he has looked down on you since the sixties, swell guy

    March 29, 2013 10:05 am at 10:05 am |
  2. belinda

    How refreshing, to read so many negative reactions to this comment. People think no one cares about the racist treatment and suffering of other people, but Americans never fail to want to do the right thing.

    March 29, 2013 10:07 am at 10:07 am |
  3. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Fair is Fair said
    Let's not leave the johnny-come-lately one off the list, either... you know, the one that makes you think of ritz or saltines?
    Actually Fair, that one came out response to the N-word wayyyyy back in "the days".
    Serously, none of this terminology should still be employed by anyone.

    March 29, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  4. hawktyme

    It was a racial sler in the 50"s. What makes him think it's not one today?
    Amazing how our furthest state north could suddenly have so much in common with all of our southern most states!!

    March 29, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  5. LTHAJ

    Can we really cause an evolutionary change through embarrassment? We are animals and survival of the fittest starts with a test of the different. Right? racism, bulling,corporate greed how nice life would be if we evolved out of these animal tendencies! HAHAHA

    March 29, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  6. jnpa

    Ahhh yes, spoken like a true REPUBLICAN!

    March 29, 2013 10:12 am at 10:12 am |
  7. Anonymous

    No suprirze as to why I am NOT a member of the Republican party !

    March 29, 2013 10:12 am at 10:12 am |
  8. Sniffit

    The GOPers/Teatrolls just can't help themselves. Too funny....kinda sad....completely ridiculous.

    March 29, 2013 10:13 am at 10:13 am |
  9. Boo

    These Republican morons just don't get it...what a pathetic bunch of idiots!!!!

    March 29, 2013 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  10. Tom

    This guy is just another doodlehead in Alaska.

    March 29, 2013 10:15 am at 10:15 am |
  11. Peace

    @ Sam
    GOP is not going to change at all. If they had determined to change after losing the election, the could not engage Sarah Palin in anything. Ask yourself, what is this woman going to change if not making GOP to be at a standstill as it was before the election? It is good for our side DEMs but still we need a real genuine and reasonable opposition, which is not the case at the moment on GOP side.

    March 29, 2013 10:15 am at 10:15 am |
  12. dean morse

    Ignorance, bias, and prejudice have no age limits. It is ingrained in some people so deeply, they themselves do not even see it in themselves. Sad commentary on a congressman who is supposed to represent the people of Alaska.

    March 29, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  13. Julia

    We should take the time to thank the immigrant workers for picking our produce, they are very hard workers, and most are very devout Christians, read the story of Cesar Chavez, this is truly a great human being, here is a quote from Cesar “Preservation of one's own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.” Long Live the Memory of Cesar, with our other great leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, and Bobby

    March 29, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  14. kev

    Hey Mr. Young.....the cameras are rolling and the world is listening. The Teabaggers never cease to amaze.

    March 29, 2013 10:18 am at 10:18 am |
  15. John

    This Is the Real Republican and TEA Party, they all about hate,LIES and to mislead people.

    March 29, 2013 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
  16. asdrel

    The Republican Party may be thinking about term limits for this 21 term (42 years!) embarrassment.

    March 29, 2013 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
  17. Carmelle Simone

    That's par for the course. The GOP just lost the 2016 election. EOM

    March 29, 2013 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  18. musician

    There's no fixing "stupid" which is why the Republicans continue to stick their feet in their collective mouths. This is obviously how they speak when they talk amongst themselves and, so, hey, it goes public now and then. Like Mitt Romney's 47% comment... it said more about who he really was than all his scripted speeches combined.

    March 29, 2013 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  19. Gabriel Massengale

    Who does he think he's fooling? The term "wet back" is a derogatory term. And was he admitting that his father knowingly employed illegal immigrants? And rather than apologize for being a racist, he defends his bigotry by saying the federal government used the derogatory term first (i.e. racism is o.k. so long as it's sanctioned by the government). Shame on you Congressman! Jindal, Rubio, get out while you can. R.I.P. GOP.

    March 29, 2013 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  20. ritmocojo

    These folks are just too far gone and the GOP toast is just about done.

    March 29, 2013 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  21. Mel

    Poor choice of words at best. It is almost as shameful as the time Jesse Jackson referred to Jews as "Hymies" and to New York City as "Hymietown" in January 1984 during a conversation with a black Washington Post reporter.

    March 29, 2013 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  22. fabe

    He speaks of having 40-50 wetbacks like we were pigs or monkeys...the slavemaster mentality has never left; it just had to evolve..the white man is now using technology instead of slavery or cheap labor...that is why I believe we will slowly be killed off as those that run the world need less people to run it...

    March 29, 2013 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  23. nuclear mike

    Political correctness is now the Liberal's "high capacity magazine" loaded with all the kick-names, abbreviated terms, past terminologies, be called "slurs" as if the word carried the HIV virus like a 30 round mag.

    Read history, learn that the past makes today happen and Alaska is the last frontier where distance keeps the Federal government’s intrusions to a minimum and the citizens of Alaska can support themselves without the lower 48'ers & Hawaii's help...Alaska should be a tax-free zone completely!!!

    Call'em as you see'em Alaskan's!!! This from a red-neck who enjoys being slurred!!! And I sleep with a native Alaskan every night so yeah Buddy…Alaskans are free spirits of the past for America!

    March 29, 2013 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  24. sunflower2

    Why is this news?... I'm so sick of it.... People need to grow a backbone and thicker skin.

    March 29, 2013 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  25. angeson

    The poor misunderstood GOP. I am of European decent and when I try to visualize a Republican, I see an old white guy with a bad heart and a worn out flag watching Fox news from 9 am to 11pm, living in fear of Them with with his pistol and bible beside him.

    March 29, 2013 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
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