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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    I'm not as concerned at racists being in public office as I am at the great number of voters that it took to elect said racists into public office...and keep re-electing them.
    THAT concerns me.

    March 29, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  2. Crazy_Town

    Alaska....the new "South". Are all Alaska politicians racist? Geez.

    March 29, 2013 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  3. crimson

    The man is almost 80 years old and lived through some pretty dynamic times in this country.. My father used the N word when i was young.. He stopped for about 30 years, he is old again and i hear him let it slip every now and then.. My father is not a hateful person, he just grew up in a difficult time in our country... You liberals, need to have some grace, because one day when you need, it wont be there if you never had it.. Im sure you will ALL need to look up the term grace, so get to it, and then understand it.

    March 29, 2013 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  4. Citizen

    What about "Criminal Entrants to the Country"?

    March 29, 2013 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  5. bryanfromhouston

    Sadly, this has become par for the course. The inability to recognize being insensitive is killing the Republican party. From 47% to 'you people' to 'legitimate rape'....who wants to be associated with that crap. The party needs a new face, a new message...heck maybe, even a new name. This re-branding effort is going poorly.

    March 29, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  6. Republicans Need to Go Away Permanently

    I've actually worked with and met Don Young and he's every bit a piece of trash as this story makes him seem to be. Get rid of him and the entire GOP Bigots and this country will be in a much better place.

    March 29, 2013 10:43 am at 10:43 am |
  7. Grand Old Party of.....


    "From my narrower perch, where I watched Nixon's "Southern strategy" successfully evolve in his 1968 campaign, it seemed that the roots of our political dysfunction trace back to a shift in southern conservative congressional representation from Democratic to Republican control following the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
    Alan Greenspan "The Age of Turbulence" pg246

    March 29, 2013 10:43 am at 10:43 am |
  8. Pepe Pena

    It is unbelievable how racist people like this one are part of the US congress. The Republican party keep making the same mistakes because that is what they believe. This party is against all minorities, women rights, gays rights, middle class. It is ashamed how this party is destroying itself with all these stupid comments on a daily basis. No one has to attack them, they are constantly hurting the republican brand with their comments.

    March 29, 2013 10:44 am at 10:44 am |
  9. ally buster

    Hey, he's a republican simply being a republican-

    March 29, 2013 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  10. Take Note

    This man should be censured by Congress! Nothing less is acceptable for such words coming out of his mouth! Hispanics/Latinos take good note of this when you go to the ballot box and consider voting Republican! Don't! They're not your friends and will never be!

    March 29, 2013 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  11. Wow1234

    @Crimson Excusing your father for being a racist is weak sauce. Using the term "You liberals" as if it were derogatory term and then telling us to "have some grace" is laughable.

    There's no excuse for being a racist. None.

    March 29, 2013 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  12. Name

    racial slur? thats funny... remind me again when "mexican" became a race..... this is simply a "derogatory term" and is far from a racial slur.

    March 29, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  13. Ashley

    The most offensive thing I read in this entire article is the fact that he's been in for 21 terms. Even with a 2-year term that's a lot of years.

    March 29, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  14. Obama-Bin-Lyin

    "You cannot go to a 7-11 or Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian Accent."

    -Senator Joe Biden

    March 29, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  15. Obama-Bin-Lyin

    Mahatma Gandhi "ran a gas station down in Saint Louis."

    -Senator Hillary Clinton

    March 29, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  16. tony

    If the Republicans speak like this in public, i would not want to know the language they use in private.

    March 29, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  17. bp

    Racist idiot. In other words, a typical GOPer.

    March 29, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  18. Obama-Bin-Lyin

    "You'd find these potentates from down in Africa, you know, rather than eating each other, they'd just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva."

    - Fritz Hollings (D, S.C.)

    March 29, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  19. Brian

    Break my heart. It's used to describe ILLEGAL Mexican citizens in the US. If your in the country legally, the term doesn't apply to you.

    March 29, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  20. Joe

    "I meant no disrespect". Right...and the world is flat too.

    March 29, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  21. Baalzabarber

    Is it possible his constituents have the same mindset? So that's how he gets voted in.

    March 29, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  22. Pi.

    Why would anyone be surprised!! He's a Republican!!
    As a Canadian who has met a lot of Republicans, 9 times out of 10, they are racist, NRA loving, only care about themselves and the rich. They are not from this planet!!

    March 29, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  23. libfreak50

    As much as they try to hide it, every once in a while they slip and let it out.

    March 29, 2013 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  24. LeeG

    "Thursday his use of the derogatory term "wetbacks" to describe immigrant workers in an interview earlier this week."

    Was it to describe immigrant workers or illegal immigrants? Nitpicking since CNN can be inaccurate at times and I am not saying he was right in saying what he did.

    March 29, 2013 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  25. Jeb

    Oh look another racist Republican.

    March 29, 2013 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
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