March 29th, 2013
08:05 AM ET
9 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."

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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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

    He said it. He meant it. No taking it back.

    March 29, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  2. Skarphace

    You say what you think when your guard is down. He said wetbacks because that is how he thinks of them. He does not see them as people, he sees them as a subrace of people, just like he probably sees other races such as black and arab.

    A white supremist cannot hide his true feelings forever; eventually it slips out.

    March 29, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  3. Inciteful

    Obviously, everything is relative. To help illegal Latino immigrants seeking job opportunity, the U.S. government should assist them by sending them on ocean liners to China. That's where many former, U.S. jobs have been sent.

    March 29, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  4. Well...

    Republicans the party of hatred, nuts and bigots. They worked so hard to exclude all but the whites that that is all that they are.

    March 29, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  5. SeilnoigileR

    @Mississippi Sam
    You stated 'We, here in the south, are the descendants of the original colonists and therefore the true Americans' which is patently false. The only southern states that even signed them were Georgia and South Carolina. You could also include N Carolina and Virginia, I suppose. Mississippi wasn't even a colony. So maybe 4 of 13 – not even a majority. Fail.

    March 29, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  6. Robert Graham

    Looks the republican strategy of reaching out to minority voters is going quite well!!! Most minority voters know this party is a refuge for bigots. Good luck with your strategy, Republicans.

    March 29, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  7. soshal justic

    The republican does not condone pejorative words to describe social groups of people. Instead they prefer the PC words to socially oppress groups of people! Why give the Republicans any soap box time. They are tiring to listen to and have only the hope of gaining votes through lies and a veil of feigned innocence. Lets face it, for Boehner 47% of the people in the US do not matter and are simply useful as slaves to the wealthy. We are owned, lock, stock and barrel by those of greater importance in the nation. All of us wetbacks with ancestors that swam from the boat to land or across the Rio Grande will never vote Republican again because of the apology. Proudly 47% and having family that served the country in the armed forces, whether our backs were wet, then our cheeks for being ignored, proudly 47% the GOP will never understand nor count as a voter. Our power is in our pejoratives, it is only a word, defines user more than the person the pejorative falls upon. Yes, we were all called a myriad of other names, with out hurt they separated out and divided our nation, the gop tries to do same today, with money, with policy, with medicare, with social security, always separating the haves from the not worthy, now using PC terminology. The GOP is still hiding under the white hood and has not changed, seeks re-branding for a very old kid game of divisiveness and hate under the cross of blame toward other groups of people of other differing cultures.

    March 29, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  8. ronjayaz

    "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." I thought "wetbacks" were the ones who swam the Rio Grande. Yet his father's farm was in California. Oh, well, he's 79 y/o. So U can understand where his mind is.

    March 29, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  9. lolo

    It is funny how the first thing they say is Democrats do it all the time? Obviously not, because all I hear and see is the Republican/TP Klan saying it all the time. It just rolls off of their tongues effortlessly. They just won't admit the truth to themselves, that every since a half-white/half-black president has been elected their true colors are coming to the surface. See they had buried their racist behavior so long, that when Obama was elected, they just lost it. They think that anyone who is not white should bow down to them, don't look them in the eye and definitely not run their white America. Then they expect for people to join their GOP party. Give me a break!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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

    Jeez...Why are nearly all of the bigots now in the Republican party? America is a two party political system and they had to gravitate somewhere, especially after a black man was elected president!

    March 29, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  11. embarrasing

    I really want my politicians to be smarter than they apparently are.

    March 29, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  12. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Soiling your diapers is a body function that some old people lose control of as they age.
    They can't help it.
    They can certainly help what emanates out of their mouth unless of course they are suffering from some form of Alzheimer's/dementia or Turrets...or they've been bigots all along and figure that they can once again let lose because their age will give them a "pass" or they can use their age to claim a "pass".

    March 29, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  13. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    My old mother- in- law used to go around saying in MY house: "These foreigners".
    I put that in check immediately.

    March 29, 2013 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  14. Jim J.

    There was absolutely no offense this 79 year old man meant when he told the story. Political correctness with changing terminologies got out of hand many years ago. He was relaying an HISTORICAL situation. Derogatory or not back then, that is a term some used...including the US government! It is not used today, but those who lived through those times, and do not mean to disparage people, should be allowed to otherwise use the terms of the time in such an historical context. To scrub past terms out of the history books entirely is to engage in historical revisionism. That would mean that future generations would not even know such terms existed or what they mean. And those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Condemning a senior who, again, lived though those times, just for accurately describing an event with an historical term used at that time should stop. People should be able to put such things in context. He was not condemning anyone. He was just telling a STORY! Let a senior do that!

    March 29, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  15. Steve

    Yes, let's all rage on this for awhile. That's good. Ignore that the IMF and the global banks are stealing money directly from Cyprus citizens bank accounts, that Obama recently signed a bill into law that prohibits labeling GMO foods, it's all about what some dingbat said in Alaska.

    March 29, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  16. GOPUSA

    The man is telling the truth..........Mexican Illegals are WETBACKS..................They don't belong here,they deserve no pity for breaking our laws and stealing from the American Worker and Taxpayer...........Just Deport all the wetbacks

    March 29, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  17. Gene Tracy

    I am proud of Congressman Don Young and agree with him 100%. He had the guts to say what millions of honest, hardworking, tough, legal Americans have been thinking. I support all candidates and elected officials who are working to cleanse our country of parasites and illegal workers. Latinos make up the majority of these horrible human beings and should be permanently removed, or placed in prison. Since the election of Obama, infiltration of illegals has grown to epidemic proportions, and I praise Congressman Young for having the courage to stand up to this criminal communist.

    March 29, 2013 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  18. John Brown

    The day our country is rid of wetbacks and all lazy welfare cheats, the better. I'm ready to fight for my beliefs. If Romney had been elected, this poisoning of America with blood-sucking, money-stealing immigrants wouldn't be happening. impeach Obama!

    March 29, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  19. DaveC

    Poor Republican Party. They trot out Rubio, Jindal and the rest of the token minorities and then they have an OWG (Old White Guy) shoot his mouth off about religions, race or women's rights (all on the wrong side of the issue of course). In the old days Reagan or Bush Sr. would have called this clown into the White House and made sure he kept this trap shut. Unfortunately, McConnell and Boehner couldn't control the message coming out of their own office let alone anyone else's office. What a sad state of affairs.

    BTW, how exactly does the congressman want us to interpret the term "wetback" when he uses it in the context of immigration? Exactly how big a fool does he think the American public is?

    March 29, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  20. Billy davis

    No walking back your bigotry. It's only now viewed by the rest of the world and not just those close to you that have tolerated it and allowed it to flourish.

    March 29, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  21. Spectre

    "Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, blasted Young in a statement, saying migrant workers come to the country for work and opportunities,....."

    The turkey from Texas left out food stamps, welfare, WIC, Medi-Cal and any other freebies I can't think of at the moment.

    March 29, 2013 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  22. Pete

    See the racist,bigotted republicans raised their ugly white heads again..There seems to be a pattern when one side of their party wants to unite minorities for the republican party of tommorrow then an old white trailer trash type racist makes an ass out himself as well as his party and pushs back any progress that's been done upto now..Call it the way you want it but a racist no matter how you package it under republicans is still a racist and even with minorities like Rubio,Cruz ,West and Jindal you can't escape reality and you know republicans reality really bites doesn't it!!See you losers at midterms boys!!

    March 29, 2013 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  23. Shirl207

    What this country needs more than being politically correct is a "Wetback Operation".

    March 29, 2013 11:23 pm at 11:23 pm |
  24. Moregunsfewerbooks

    There's nothing like a slip of the tongue to bring out the truth. It's nice that this happens. Give's the populace a good prospective on the (so called), leaders they've put they're faith in.

    March 30, 2013 08:39 am at 8:39 am |
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