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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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

    This is why Cain Velasquez is the way he is in the UFC

    March 29, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  2. Breatheasy

    Goodbye Repblicans. What a back-handed apology. Go off into the sunset with the rest of them.

    March 29, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  3. Robert

    You can't make generalizations about a party based on what one person says or does. John Edwards cheated on his wife while she was dying of cancer. That's about as low as you can go. Are all Democrats like that? I sure hope not. Also, wanting America to enforce its borders is NOT racist–it's the law and it's common sense.

    March 29, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  4. Bill

    Welcome to the new rebranded GOP that loves immigrants and is not racist.

    March 29, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  5. Should Not Have Said It

    While his remark may not be classified as "racist" because Hispanics/Latinos are in actuality members of the white race, it certainly is an ethnic slur and an egregious one at that which no elected representative should ever feel the need to utter.

    March 29, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  6. Babyboomer

    The ignorance of this man's comments are palpable. What a sad, sad person he is...

    March 29, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  7. Christopher

    When you have Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glen Beck as your primary spokespeople what do you expect?

    These "gentlemen" have massive audiences to whom they preach division, disgust and contempt.. Anyone or anything that doesn't fit their template of a "true" American is discounted and demonized and millions who eat it up with a spoon.

    Thankfully, there are more thoughtful and intelligent citizens who vote than there are of Limbaugh's "Dittoheads" and Hannity's "Graet Americans". Crazy never wins.

    You can thank "El Rushbo" and his ilk for the demise of what should have been a

    March 29, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  8. judith

    Oh, of course he meant no "disrespect." Typical Republican behavior. Conservatives are creatures full the brim with hate, ignorance and prejudice.

    March 29, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  9. kb1908

    The sad thing is he really thought that was OK. It's like his racial relations haven't evolved since 50s.

    March 29, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  10. Lobelia

    The headline I clicked on says "Alaska Republican uses racial slur." The term "wetback" is derogatory, but it is not a racial slur. There is no implication in this term that any race is inferior. As we all know, the reference is to people who entered the country illegally by wading across the Rio Grande river. It's no different than "border jumper" or any other term referring to an illegal border crossing. The term does not imply that all hispanics (assuming that is even a "race") entered the country illegally. It's a term used by ignorant people, for sure, and certainly derogatory, but not a racial slur.

    March 29, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  11. Jerry

    Oh, because he's a Republican we can't allow this to get by even though he has apologized and acknowledged his use of the word today is not the same as when he was growing up. If he was a Democrat CNN would never have run the story.

    March 29, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  12. Papaw nick

    Years ago it was used for those who crossed the border illegaly to enter the USA. So today to use it is racest. Mexican is a nationallity not a race. Today to be political correst we MUST NOT use the term illegal to describe those who are here illegally. Remember we have 1000's of citizens who came here leaglly taking the months to follow our laws. People basically tell them they are stupid when they could have just crossed the border illegally. Shows the difference between people.

    March 29, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  13. sjlucas

    Let me see if I understand the Congressman. He grew up in a racist environment where he felt his position (the son of a rancher who hired migrant workers) allowed him the right to use derogatory terms like "wetback". Now, he's a Congressman (which I guess is pretty much a derogatory term in and of itself)and he feels he still has the right to use such racist terms, but only he means them in a "different" way. DISGUSTING. But hey, what do you expect of a state that would elect Sarah Palin governor?

    March 29, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  14. Highly Inappropriate

    Yes, it's a known fact that his slur should not be applied as 'racist' concerning any Hispanic or Latino person because their race as a matter of fact is white, but it certainly is an ethnic slur which should have been avoided at all costs as it is highly bigoted and inappropriate to use.

    March 29, 2013 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  15. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    P H

    "Wetback" may be considered an ethnic slur but it isn't a racial slur. It's strange the four people that supposedly collaborated on this story didn't pick up on that.
    "That supposedly collaborated", good one! Lol!

    March 29, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  16. atlmetroguy

    All you people whine and moan if a Repub says something stupid, how about the Democrat state legislator in Alabama who did the same thing on his state email account? Where's your outrage? Why is every MSM outlet not reporting on? It's not because you all bigoted and biased and hourly do all the things you accuse Repubs and Conservatives of...hypocrites one and all.

    March 29, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  17. dan0504

    If this article was a properly reported story then it would be titled "Alaska Representative uses racial slur" – just like what is used for the other representatives. But since half or more of CNN has it out for Republicans they titled it this way to try and slander the whole party as if this guy was speaking for the whole party

    March 29, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  18. Log Cabin

    The GOP is the party of racist white men. This is news?

    March 29, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  19. cobbled-mule

    Sterile world. Let these porker partyline blabbers meet their own demise. But we know they have their following of mental midgets.

    March 29, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  20. Name mike

    No wonder Hispanics & other immgrants wont vote republican.

    March 29, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  21. Dee

    I am not surprised!

    March 29, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  22. Mary

    Wetback was a derogatory term when he was growing up in California too, so what kind of explanation is that? Self-serving I think.

    March 29, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  23. Bob Blue

    Apology not accepted. You said exactly what you mean.

    March 29, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  24. xirume

    The dude looks like a holdover from the Civil War. Why are these obsolete dinosaurs still legislating? Vote them out !!!

    March 29, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  25. DocHollywood

    "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."
    Back then, it was used in a deragatory manor. Today it's still used in a deragatory way. I'm not sure what world this guy lives in, but I doubt it's on this planet.

    March 29, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
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