March 29th, 2013
12:46 PM ET
10 years 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.

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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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    I find it funny that within hours of this congressman calling us wetbacks Republicans pounced on him to apologize.
    And yet for years and years now a certain faction of the Republican Party has been allowed, nay, encouraged to say that our duly elected President is not an American.
    That too is an insult. An insult to ALL Americans but no one has yet been made to step forward and apologize to the POTUS.
    I wonder if Republicans realize that when you insult the POTUS you are insulting millions of Americans.
    And among those Americans is the Latino population whose vote you are so hard up for.
    It's almost ha-ha funny how that works out isn't it?
    I wonder if

    March 29, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  2. MIke

    The GOP is the party of hypocrites. They obviously do not like immigrants, but they want to keep it hush hush.

    March 29, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  3. kayla

    all the repugs coming out are all hypocrites, "out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh'

    March 29, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  4. KT

    That's what happens when minorities don't vote in local elections like they do for the presidency. Those who do vote, put nuts like him in office. And nuts like Rick Perry in office. Hopefully, we minorities will send him packing next election.

    March 29, 2013 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  5. Big_D

    Sure Republicans think they are not racists but the truth is far different than their perception again. Next we will have the shock realization that our budget was balanced before the GOP took over.

    March 29, 2013 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
  6. TheTruth

    Just a "gool ol' boy" being a "good ol' boy".

    March 29, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  7. bluebomb

    What a buffoon and a hypocrite. That term was as derogatory when he "was growing up" as it is now. It's dinosaurs like Young that dummy down our politics. His late wife, Lu, was an Alaskan Native. He would spool up like a turbine engine if a Native Alaskan slur was used in his presence.

    March 29, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  8. One L

    Sounds like the recent GOP makeover strategy session didn't have much effect...

    March 29, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  9. Senior Chief Zeus

    Just shows how out of touch this gentleman is. On another note, people complain about illegal migrant workers but not enough about the companys that employ them or the fact that they are paying into the most broken program this country has!!! Social Security needs to be scrubbed and fixed, too many bogus SSN numbers out there!!!!

    March 29, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  10. James Bond

    Open mouth, insert foot, rinse, and reppeat as neccessary

    March 29, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  11. vargvast

    Why I have been saying it time and again; Don't trust a political party that suddenly starts to try and pander to a voter base they have ignored for years.

    March 29, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  12. ted

    wonder if this newest GOP hypocrite will apologize or say the normal – if i offended anyone, i am sorry – which basically means that he doesn't care if he offended anyone. why do these clowns put their mouth in gear with their brain in neutral or actually never turned on.

    March 29, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  13. RonnieB

    It's interesting–meaning, hypocritical–how the high profile Republicans are calling for this guy's head for insulting Latinos, but those same high profile Republicans were mute when their fellow partymen were referring to President Obama in all manner of ethnic and racial disparagements.

    "Yeah, we'll apologize to the Mexicans, but we ain't apologizing to the blacks".

    March 29, 2013 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  14. kiskakodiak

    I live in Alaska and I am so angered and ashamed of our elected officials – not just Young, but also the numerous wingnut reactionary crazies in the state legislature. Young can almost be forgiven – he has always had a big stupid mouth – but as for the rest – what are we paying these people for?
    The only reason Alaskans keep re-electing Young is that he is very efficient at bringing home the bacon to Alaska.

    March 29, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  15. Dismayed

    Yes, this should get far more coverage than this lawmakers diatribe. Google this before you get on too high of a horse onthe story CNN decided to cover
    Alabama lawmaker's email: 'Slave-holding, murdering, adulterous, baby-raping, snaggle-toothed kin folk'

    March 29, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  16. Mike

    Former Senator Robert Byrd was a member of the KKK. Very few people reading that even know that fact, and why? Because the liberal media doesn't seek to destroy democrats. Poor, knotted-up liberals. The hypocrisy is so thick you can touch it.

    March 29, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  17. Waldo

    The 2016 election aside, Young speaks for all Republicans.

    March 29, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  18. CynicLgrrl

    Yo, GOP, good luck winning-over the Latino vote.

    March 29, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  19. craig

    Yet another member of the GOP who didn't get Jindal's memo. They just can't help themselves or stop saying Stupid Things. Maybe it's simply because...well, sorry to draw the obvious conclusion, but if you keep saying Stupid Things people are likely to believe it's because you're stupid. What other reasonable conclusion is there? "Re=branding" is going to fix this. As the saying goes You can't fix Dumb!

    March 29, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  20. KeenObserver

    I suppose when BO called his G-ma "a typical white woman", THAT wasn't racist? And BO wasn't serving his 21st term either.

    March 29, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  21. joe

    If he likes stereotypes then how about the OLD WHITE RACIST REPUBLICAN stereotype- HEY if the foo Sh-ts wear it.

    March 29, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  22. GI Joe

    Maybe super-intelligent Sara should run against him – ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. After all, Alaska has only one representative in DC.

    March 29, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  23. Mangus

    This shows you how the political left has used the race card for the end to the means......wetback was commonly used in the central valleys of California.....and still is......backs were wet....from crossing illegially into the US.........what should we call abiding citizens, Americans-have you traveled to California lately......the Golden State.....high crime, drugs, lack of social services that are now broke down because of those on the is a joke....people are fleeing that state in droves.......democratic state that will be the first prime example of the breakdown of a once prosperious country.....but we must be careful not to upset the Obama nation....the politically correct nation...all about race and color...get a job!

    March 29, 2013 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  24. Randy, San Francisco

    It took long enough for the Republican Party to realize saying harmful things is politically incorrect and harmful to the party in voting booths. They should also take Palin, Bachmann, and Sen. Cruz for saying stupid things.

    March 29, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
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