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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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

    Oh get over yourself CNN and stop making this into something that it isn't. The Today Show already covered it this morning. I'd like to thank the Today Show for not twisiting it into a witch hunt like CNN does.

    March 29, 2013 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  2. Alasca,Boston,Atlanta,Minneapolis etc all are the same

    they all are as racist as the rest of this country.

    March 29, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  3. abbydelabbey

    yeah, yeah, yeah - sometimes someone's true feelings just slip out - it's called a Freudian slip - and it shows what one is really thinking and how one really feels....

    March 29, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  4. Mark

    Give him a break! Conservatives/Repubs can't help stating the things they believe!

    March 29, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  5. Up north

    It sounds like Mr. Young is perfectly comfortable being a bigot and isn't afraid to say so. And the Republican Party wonders what's wrong?
    In a country where Caucasians are no longer the majority and a congressman is calling people “wetbacks”, the Republican Party is wondering what’s wrong. Why?
    Mr. Young is one of the "good ol boys" in Congress who is reinforcing the racists in this country with his derogatory talk about those not of his racial background. And the Republican Party wonders what's wrong?
    It is people like Mr. Young that put white males, Republicans, and Americans in a bad light. We are not all insensitive racists!
    Mr. Young, just because your daddy called a certain group of people something over two generations ago, it doesn't mean you shouldn't grow up and learn to treat all people with respect. You need to look at the damage your chosen vocabulary does towards others and does to the stature of this country. Derogatory talk like your hurts all of us, not just Republicans, but all Americans.
    And the Republican Party wonders what's wrong?

    March 29, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  6. 1sourskeptic

    What is it with the politicians from Alaska? This guy, Ted Stevens, Palin... All off their respective rockers.

    March 29, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  7. Eh?

    What witch hunt? The man admitted he said it. We have the freedom of speech, but also the responsibility to stand accountable for what we have said.

    March 29, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  8. Adrian

    Just for this im canceling mu cruise to Alaska

    March 29, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  9. JV12

    Oh know. Someones feeling might get hurt because someone is telling people there feelings should be hurt. We should be over this PC bs by now.

    March 29, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  10. AprilElaine

    What an ignorant fool. Kids in High School know the term "Wetbacks" is a racial slur. The Republicans have a bunch of idiots working for them. If this is the kind of representation that have they will NEVER improve their image or have another Republican president win an election. They need to fix the people within themselves before they can even attempt to have a chance at presidency.

    March 29, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  11. Patrick

    This is a classic example of a word that was used to describe a class of people that in its original form was not considered a slur. The illegal immigrants were called wet backs because they presumably got their backs wet crossing the Rio Grande. Ironically the Mexicans used/use this term but in Spanish it is not considered derogatory. The fact is most people have a negative perception towards illegal immigrants and any word used to describe them can be considered derogatory. I remember seeing one girl going around the news shows saying it was racist to call them "illegal".

    March 29, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  12. Jack 2

    When calling a government agency, why doe's the government ask if you wan to speak spanish or english? They don't ask if you want to speak any other language? If they come here they should lern the language. In some cities now like Miami you almost have to speak spanish. When you visit these cities they don't even seem American anymore.

    March 29, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  13. Joe

    Using the fact that he used the term when he was young just goes to prove that he was a racist then and has not learned anything in all those years and is still a racist today.

    March 29, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  14. lottie

    Someone stated that this guy is old so it is alright. THis guy works for us and we pay his salary. There is no excuse. Politicians of all people should be more carful of what they say because everyone hears it. Another example of the detachment of the republican party. Know wonder they are thought of as dinosaurs

    March 29, 2013 11:00 am at 11:00 am |
  15. Okay Jose

    79 years old. You made your money, had your glory days- time to step out of the picture.

    March 29, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  16. Ken

    For those who dismiss Rep. Young's use of an ethnic slur as much ado about nothing have never been the object of an ethnic slur themselves. It is NOT meaningless; it's insensitive and ignorant.

    March 29, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  17. max3333444555

    his comment gets a big who cares from me. a 79 year old without any racisim

    March 29, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  18. Michael

    I guess people can't apologize. I can certainly also explain why he is an ***** (insert any obscene word you like) but that doesn't make it right because he fits the definition. I guess he is just too important to apologize. Sad.

    March 29, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  19. Mississippi Sam

    By God, now that's a man I'd vote for the next President – if the rascal was a wee bit younger, mind you. Mighty big hiring those Mexico boys for inexpensive labor costs. So sorry, dear Yankees. The Articles of Confederation came prior to the US
    Constitution. We, here in the south, are the descendants of the original colonists and therefore the true Americans. The South's going to rise again. Well, my sense of humor got to be better than those stiff faced Yankees.

    March 29, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  20. Robyn

    I suppose that Mr. Young correctly feels that
    being a Republican member of Congress,
    behaving in an ignorant, abusive and offensive
    manner is simply what is required to be accepted
    by his "gang".

    March 29, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  21. Lindalou

    To say you meant nothing by it is sweeping it under the rug. Come on, saying it shows your true mindset. He looks on people doing menial work as lesser human beings than himself. I don't care what party you're with, this is a good old boy mentality we don't need it in office. It's an us against them attitude that has to go.

    March 29, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  22. Just a thought

    Just what you might expect from the core of the republican party An old white guy making questionable comments

    March 29, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  23. Scout

    Bob, I missed the "Today Show", which is quite normal as I do not get my news from a variety show. This witch hunt you speak of, it almost sounds like your defending the politician.

    March 29, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  24. idb

    The man was totally right of course. The people he was referring to are not immigrants in any way, shape or form. They are common criminals and need to be treated as such.

    March 29, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  25. Keef

    "If they come here they should *lern* the language?"


    Nope, never mind.

    March 29, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
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