March 29th, 2013
08:05 AM ET
1 year 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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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. joe

    Racist. Pure and simple. It doesn't matter where the word came from. Any term used to separate and put down an entire race of people is horrible. This is what is wrong with America. This is very relevant and newsworthy. It shows how disconnected republicans are from reality and who lives in America.

    March 29, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  2. rosethornne

    Once again, a republicon opens his mouth and accidentally tells the truth about what the party REALLY thinks.

    No, Reince (that's not a very Amurikin name, is it?), the problem is not the way the gop is presenting its message, the problem is that the message does not reflect your REAL core values.

    March 29, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  3. kathy

    Once again....we hear a bigoted, racist verbal statement from one of the GOP members supported by Sarah Palin. Is this the party you want representing ALL the people of your state or government?

    March 29, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  4. Bart

    Republicans will continue to think this way, but the people at the top just want them to be quiet and keep it to themselves. They want to hold themselves out as being something that they are not.

    March 29, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  5. regularguy

    We have every right to respect Hispanics who are here legally or who were innocently born here. We also have every right to disrespect anyone who has violated our laws by entering illegally or by overstaying legally. There is no reason togive the latter any dignity.

    March 29, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  6. BeerBrewerDan

    "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. "

    #rebrandfail

    March 29, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  7. NYRNOK

    I suppose he can sit onhis back porch and see Mexico!!

    March 29, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  8. YUCK

    In elementary school,"WE ARE ALL TAUGHT TO THINK BEFORE YOU TALK."If any politician can't figure that out they shouldnt even be in power or in office.....

    March 29, 2013 11:12 am at 11:12 am |
  9. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    @ Up North
    Enjoyed reading your post.
    Thank you.

    March 29, 2013 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  10. Mike

    It is absolutely racist, but at the same time I think it was somewhat unintentional. I remember my Grandfather would say similar things, and shocked we would call him out on it, and he would look genuinely surprised and say that was what they were called. No excuse, but not surprising.

    March 29, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  11. Ryan

    So when an elected representative uses a racial slur on the radio and it is reported on cnn, we should get over it? And pointing that said elected official is from the same party that lost the vote of the racially slurred demographic by 5 to 1, that is a witch hunt? Tell me more please...

    March 29, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  12. Ryan

    @Mike My grandfather is 91, from Texas and does the same thing – but guess what? He isn't an elected US Congressman.

    March 29, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  13. Curt29

    "Understand that term "wetback" is a word a lot of people, out west, grew up saying. Wet backs were people that crossed the Rio Grande, illegally, to get to the United States. I don't think it's a slur. It's a matter of fact. Personally, I use the terms, illegals, illegal aliens and Mexicans. I just don't like them. They don't obey our laws, can't speak our language and still hail mexico. No thank you." – Southernsuga

    This person doesn't get it. Just because you grew up saying it, doesn't mean it's alright. It's certainly not alright for a politician to say, if they like their career.

    March 29, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  14. Smacky Smooth

    Jindahl may have had enough of it , but not the old white guard....they will NEVER change their views and opinions. They think it is still 1955.

    March 29, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  15. Brandon

    JV12,
    You should really take a 3rd grade English class again. You are a true Republican. Dumb and ignorant...

    Your comment:
    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.

    Proper spelling & English:
    Oh no. Someone's feelings might get hurt because someone is telling people their feelings should be hurt. We should be over this PC bs by now.

    March 29, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  16. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Keef

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

    Um...

    Nope, never mind.
    -------------------------------------------------
    I know right?!
    Bwahahahahahahahahahaha!!
    Just like the guy making excuses for his old father and asking liberals to have "grace"; urging them to look up the definition of "grace" when it is quite clear that he hasn't gone anywhere near a dictionary!!
    You just can't make these people up!!

    March 29, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  17. SV

    Nice of him to blame his parents for not teaching him right from wrong. Rep Young, you are an adult completely responsible for your actions and the backward beliefs you walk around with. And if you've so insulated yourself with people and a culture that has not clued you in by now what is acceptable to say and what is not...then, you sir, are an idiot.

    March 29, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  18. NotFooledByDistractions

    Absolutely stunning. His so-called "apology" actually made things even worse. Saying that the term "wetbacks" was used in a different way back then is absolutely false. It has the same meaning and connotation now as it did back then. He's a total buffoon for not realizing that using that term was as tasteless and bigoted back then as it is now.

    Nice, you can't beat the republican minority outreach program, eh?

    March 29, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  19. GO_GOP

    Even if he said so what? He spoke his mind. He is my hero. Stop this political correctness BS. Now. Or leave my country. Now.

    March 29, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  20. Edwin

    I actually believe him. He is old school, and it illustrates that words and mentality don't change quickly. I believe he meant no disrespect from the term... but I also believe he had no respect for them regardless of his word choices.

    March 29, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  21. Bob

    He's a 79 year old that grew up on a farm. I have no problem with his use of the word.

    March 29, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  22. Lynda/Minnesota

    "They need to fix the people within themselves before they can even attempt to have a chance at presidency."

    By first trying to understand their "inner" need to call groups of people derogatory names? Yeah, I would agree. Especially from folks who have long since left their middle school years behind them.

    March 29, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  23. Vence

    If it talks as a racist. belongs to a racist party and looks as a racist.........."complete the sentence"

    March 29, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  24. wonderabout

    You can't rebrand a party that clearly hates everyone but those in their small group of greedy, power-hungry corporate shills! Rebrand in the Republican playbook means lying more, repeating the lies ad-nausium, and hoping people believe them!

    March 29, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  25. JustAnObservation

    It appears as though the Young family not only illegally employed non-resident workers, but treated them poorly. Does this not matter to anyone?

    March 29, 2013 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
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