March 29th, 2013
12:46 PM ET
1 year ago

Republicans chide Young for his 'wetbacks' comment

(CNN) – With the GOP actively working to reshape its image, it didn't take long for top Republicans to blast one of their own, Rep. Don Young, for using the derogatory term "wetbacks" in describing migrant workers from Mexico.

The longtime congressman from Alaska attempted to explain why he used the ethnic slur, but he's nevertheless seeing little mercy from some of the biggest voices in the GOP.

In perhaps one of the most forceful reactions, House Speaker John Boehner called for the congressman, who's now serving his 21st term, to apologize.

"Congressman Young's remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds. I don't care why he said it – there's no excuse and it warrants an immediate apology," he said.

Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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

Young issued a statement Thursday to a local television station in Anchorage, which didn't come as a full apology but sought to clarify his reasoning behind using the word.

"I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California," he said. "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."

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. It was used by the government in the 1950s for "Operation Wetback," a massive crackdown on illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But on the heels of a new Republican push to expand its outreach to minorities, especially Latinos, Democrats were quick to point out the comment as damaging–and similar reactions from Republicans started rolling in, as well.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said Young's words "emphatically" don't represent the party.

"Our party represents freedom and opportunity for every American and a beacon of hope to those seeking liberty throughout the world," he said in a statement. "Offensive language and ethnic slurs have no place in our public discourse."

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the number two Republican in the upper chamber, was also quick to seek distance from the comment. He 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.

Sen. John McCain, one of the leading GOP voices on immigration reform, said on Twitter that Young's comments "were offensive and have no place in our Party or in our nation's discourse."

"He should apologize immediately," he added.

The party's tone on immigration became a focal point in the GOP's self-review following November's presidential election. One of the most talked-about issues was Mitt Romney's position in favor of "self-deportation," where undocumented immigrants would voluntarily leave, go home and get in the back of the line to re-apply for entry into the country.

In a report released earlier in March by the RNC, which showed the results of its months-long review after Election Day, the party described such language as harmful to the party's image and ability to connect with voters that generally fall outside of the GOP column.

"If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence," the report stated. In one of its few policy recommendations, the report advised Republicans to "embrace and champion" comprehensive immigration reform.

And GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana focused on the impact of ill-fated 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."


Filed under: Don Young • John Boehner • Republicans
soundoff (99 Responses)
  1. BrightStar

    Wetbacks no longer exist since all the water in the Rio Grand is diverted elsewhere.

    March 29, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  2. Matt Shaw

    Let's look at a key fact from this article: Young is "now serving his 21st term." Young has been in Congress since 1973. This isn't experience, this is petrification. The Cold War is over, Nixon and the Soviet Union are dead, Czechoslovakia is now 2 separate countries both friendly to the US but with separate needs, and the internet has brought nearly universal informational access. This man is an artifact, not a contemporary legislator. Perhaps he should go pick his family's tomatoes.

    March 29, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  3. SilentPro21

    If it looks like a migrant worker, sounds like a migrant worker, smells like a migrant worker it must be a wetback.

    March 29, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  4. Arturo

    Can't fix Tea-Repub stupid.

    March 29, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  5. Noof

    What ocean did Young's family cross in order to get to America?

    March 29, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  6. DARTH CHENEY

    I hereby apologize for my previous use of language, which accurately reflected both my sentiments and the sentiments of the majority of my party, and would like to replace it with an alternative and disingenuous usage which has been thoroughly spun for public consumption.

    March 29, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  7. tet1953

    Alaska just keeps churning out GOP whackos, it seems.

    March 29, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  8. Chris

    Well Republican will be Republicans, meaning racist etc. If you try to stop them in one place, they will pop up in another. Hopeless endeavor.

    March 29, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  9. Boo

    And the Republicans still don't get why they keep losing elections.....DUH!

    March 29, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  10. Great Country

    He must like the taste of his own foot.

    March 29, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  11. rickp530

    My opinion: Any government official that uses derogative words referring to a person or person's ethnic origin should be relieved of all their duties on the spot.

    March 29, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  12. crabman

    what a surprise

    March 29, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  13. Swimmer

    This comment is so uncool, but I do hope we can move on quickly. I want our political discourse in this country to be about solving problems. Now we'll have two weeks of back and forth with this guy: "resign" "apologize" "avoid" That's fine for five minutes but let's get back to work and everyone quit grandstanding around this useless focus of some fool's derogatory term. Let actions speak louder than the words.

    March 29, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  14. Former Republican, now an Independent

    When it comes to today's republican party, you can paint over a Zebra's stripes, but they will eventually show their true colors.

    March 29, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  15. edward

    What is more interesting is the fact that a Repub reveals that a family business hired illegal immigrants knowingly to perform work rather than hire Americans.....funny how those who spew hate are the first to look for the cheapest way to make a buck in this case "wetbacks". Shameful!

    March 29, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  16. thealaskacurmudgeon

    Typical Don Young. He won't apologize.

    March 29, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  17. Dave

    "Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said Young's words 'emphatically' don't represent the party".

    Of course they do. That's why stuff like this keeps happening even though the party leadership is desperately trying to prevent it. The GOP rank and file bigots just can't help themselves.

    March 29, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  18. Fred Stevens

    The author of the article is wrong on the origin of the term "wetback". If refers to agricultural workers who are often bent over during work and have sweaty backs.

    March 29, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  19. Fair is Fair

    He should be chided. And admonished. And pilloried. And resign.

    March 29, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  20. Jeremiah

    "I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California," he said. "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."

    Right. Because back in the 50s, "wetback" was a term of endearment.

    This guy is so clueless he doesn't even know he's an azz. Fits right in with his crowd, though.

    March 29, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  21. gatofelix

    Old habits die hard

    March 29, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  22. Ray E. (Georgia)

    It would be interesting to hear from all the immigrants who were in the projects in the East of how they described each other in years past. And it was no big thing.

    March 29, 2013 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  23. Jokesterer

    Just don't call them illegal wb's.

    March 29, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  24. lol

    lol

    March 29, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  25. iceload9

    What bubble have these people been living in all these years? Oh yea Washington. "Congressman Young's remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds." Boehner can relax, we know there is nothing below the dignity of congress ask their PAC handlers.

    March 29, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
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