March 29th, 2013
12:46 PM ET
7 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.

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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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

    Well I'll be darned. I guess maybe these guys have finally gotten the memo.

    March 29, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  2. Pk duster

    Young just said what the gop thinks about any spanish person that is like saying the n word nig the gop hates poor people he must be mittens friend

    March 29, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  3. ART

    Rethuglicans the gift that keeps on giving

    March 29, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  4. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    House Speaker John Boehner called for the congressman, who's now serving his 21st term, to apologize.
    Yes indeed.
    20 times they have re-elected this yahoo into public office.
    And for those of you who kept saying "apology NOT accepted" I didn't want to be the one to point out to you that nowhere in the article did it state that he had apoligized...because he HAD NOT.
    America your "face" is changing in spite of a determined minority continuing to RE-ELECT retro yahoos like this so-called congressman.

    March 29, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  5. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    That should've been "apologized". Pardon the fat fingers.

    March 29, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  6. Bill

    I guess this is how they are "rebranding" themselves. A joke of a political party.

    March 29, 2013 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  7. Me

    Although the remark was insensitive and a jerk thing to say it was neither a racial slur or an ethnic slur. Mexicans are not a race or an ethnicity they are a nationality. It was a national slur. The authors of this article are idiots.

    March 29, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  8. oldtexan

    Yeah, congressman, I heard that name a lot when I was growing up in Texas. It was disrespectful then, just like it is now.

    March 29, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  9. 1stironweed

    Why is it the trend of the day to politically coddle those who have shown no respect for our laws whatsoever, who do not seek citizenship but every dollar they can get their hands on?

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

    Wow, a GOPer using a racist word and trying to "explain", thought the "new" GOP was reaching out, guess this is their way to reach out, they used to just use the word without "explaining"

    March 29, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  11. AC Summers

    And the GOP wants to embrace all cultures and welcome them to the party.Yeah,,RIGHT!! This only shows that the old GOP needs to be rolled into a corner. They are reilics. He does not need to apologize he needs to retire, sitting on a porch with his racist thoughts..

    March 29, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  12. 1stironweed

    We are so politically correct we are almost a parody of ourselves. Why is it the political trend to coddle these people who have no respect for our laws and prefer every dollar they can get their hands on to citizenship?

    March 29, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  13. Notadolt

    Young is just another Republican warrior in the war against America's middle class. Egregious racial slur hound force his resignation. A top Michigan Republican official just slurred gay Americans, but no resignation or even apology. Republican Michigan governor Rick Snyder and his party imposed high new taxes on already retired pensioners on fixed incomes, yet gave new tax breaks to wealthy. Election 2014 not far away...

    March 29, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  14. Gary

    Apologize? Is that it? If this happened on a regular job, private industry. he would have been fired on the spot and walked out the door by security... NO, he needs to be removed from office. Setting the standard of apology to just make it go away doesn't work anymore. If I could be fired for saying it, which I would be.... then so should the congressman. The Grand ole Party taking care of their Good Ole Friends.

    March 29, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  15. jibjib

    you'd think they'd learn, but they never do...

    March 29, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  16. Phil

    This guy should be fired. How is racism ever going to die if we allow a congressman to speak like that? Fact is, an apology is only apologizing for saying it. Nothing in the apology is going to change this guy's thinking of Mexicans. We don't need a guy like this as a leader whether he is on the right or left, rom CA or AK. Come on voters, do the right thing.

    March 29, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  17. Jon C.

    Forget the apology, just step down from the position of trust you once had in this country's legislature.

    "Stop being the stupid party" indeed.

    March 29, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  18. matt

    The GOP is really fumbling the ball all over the place!

    March 29, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  19. Andrew

    Sigh, the Republican Party.

    March 29, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  20. Mark P

    I wonder what he called the black people who carried his bags at the train station?

    March 29, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  21. damian

    So if I used the N-word in my ol days, its ok to use them now?

    March 29, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  22. Ilheu

    Sure of course. I bet that they shortchanged them while they labored. Typical reaction, honest graft. Good enough to do the dirty work, but never good enough to be human beings.

    March 29, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  23. kmac

    Won't make any difference in Alaska.

    March 29, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  24. Just Me

    Typical of Republicans. The GOP wants the Hispanic vote and nothing else. The GOP does not even want Hispanics in the United States. If you are Hispanic and are a registered Republican, this comment tells you exactly how the Republicans think of you.

    March 29, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  25. Name Carl

    The GOP Will never change . Shame on the GOP.... The Republicans didnt learn anything from the Election...

    March 29, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
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