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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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

    People have no integrity. Stop making excuses, and admit you're wrong. You weren't QUOTING what someone said back then like they used the term; you were talking about something that happened back then – there's a BIG difference, and referred to them, in your narrative, by a derogatory, racist term. Geez these politicians are infuriating, and never learn.

    March 29, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  2. Person of Interest

    "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."

    Actually, I believe you are using the term in the exact same manner it was in your youth. However, now in non-redneck communities most people of any ethnic origin find it distasteful for an elected official to use it.

    March 29, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  3. anonymous

    How DARE anybody insult criminals?!! How DARE anybody insult these INVADERS of our country?!! Doesn't he know he should be THANKING them for their illegal invasion? He obviously needs to be re-educated in the re-education camps of the left, commonly called our public schol system.

    March 29, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  4. Brian

    And why does this guy still have a job in the U.S. Government?

    March 29, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  5. James Bond

    He said what they all think, something evil about such a cordinated effort to blatantly lie, usually in direct contrast to the truth. under the bus you young, getting crowded under there yet?

    March 29, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  6. Bill

    Welcome to the rebranded GOP.

    March 29, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  7. snarkosaurus

    If nothing else, he should be recalled for those ridiculous sideburns. What is this, the 1890s? Once again, good show, Alaska.

    March 29, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  8. Thinkergal

    Just too typical of the Repugnicants.

    March 29, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  9. RINO Bill

    Looks like Republican leadership is very selective on why they "admonish" (wink, wink, nudge, nudge ... say no more) one of their own.

    These so called leaders were awfully silent when a black present was called a Muslin and insisted that he was not even born in the U.S. Do they think that African-Americans and Hispanics are going to forget that? Do they think that women are going to forget how almost all of them were silent during the rape controversies started by ignorant Tea Partiers, whom the Republican Party fell over themselves to embrace?

    March 29, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  10. James Bond

    Direct contrast as in mittens calling obamas economic policies trickle down, that comment reeked of desperation, yet no change. they act like we dont understand what they stand for., if they say it the right way we will believe it, no need to change ideaology, just need to find the right lie.

    March 29, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  11. Bob

    The truth comes out, and the hurt (racist) dogs holler!

    Way to go, GOP, keep digging that grave!

    March 29, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  12. David

    "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."

    It was never an endearment to begin with nor has the meaning ever changed. Another Republican in the bubble.

    March 29, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  13. Rene

    They keep shooting themselves in the foot. Hilarious.

    March 29, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  14. bob

    This is why I will never vote republican again, and I am republican

    March 29, 2013 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  15. Mark

    Funny, Alaska isn't even part of the US. Just ask Sarah Palin's husband, a member of a secessionist party for almost a decade. Honestly, any state that elected her to office can't be expected to send anyone with half a brain to office. I

    March 29, 2013 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  16. Donna

    Dominican mama 4 Obama
    Yes indeed.
    20 times they have re-elected this yahoo into public office.

    How many times did Democrats elect Robert Byrd? The former Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops of the KKK?

    March 29, 2013 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  17. Richard Miller

    Must have thought that because of his heroine, Sarah, he could get away with name calling. Maybe he thought there were no brown skinned people in Alaska. Maybe he thought that.......good god, what am I saying? We all know repuglicans can't think!

    March 29, 2013 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  18. strangerq

    GOP just being themselves.

    Every now and then it slips out.

    Just put more Rubio's in front of the camera.

    That'll solve everything.

    March 29, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  19. Ms. T

    What we all fail to realize is that everyone in America has an immigrant on the family tree. We all are here because someone in the family made the decision to come to America. And the Senator has one as well.

    March 29, 2013 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  20. just sayin

    well thankfully he didn't say anything like "you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent." or he would been hounded unmercilessly from office for such a racist statement. wait a minute...

    March 29, 2013 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  21. Henry

    Since you all want to report this, would you mind also reporting what Alabama legislator Joe Mitchell (D-Mobile) said? Quite sickening actually. Quit the double standards and start reproting the news. Neither are right but you sure are quick ot out the Republican.

    March 29, 2013 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  22. TexasCentrist

    Young didn't know that the term "wetback" was a derogatory term? He should be voted out of office in the next election for stupidity if nothing else.

    March 29, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  23. ed dugan

    I don't care what he calls them, as far as I'm concerned they are not welcome in the US. Hispanics are changing our culture for the worst and we have enough of them to last through the next century. Good for him!

    March 29, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  24. nomad2003

    since the media is anti conservative, we do not get to hear about the democrats who have a history of being worst.
    Harry Reid's racist comments involving Obama are only the latest in a long line of racism from the Democrats. Though the "conventional" wisdom is that the GOP is the racist party made up of old, white, Christian men exclusively, a quick examination of some pretty prominent Democrats both past and present convincingly affirms that the Democrats don't only harbor racists in their party-they all-out condone them. Of course, this is totally at odds with the "conventional" wisdom because the liberal media covers it up so heavily.
    But in truth, Harry Reid's racist comments shouldn't really strike anyone by surprise. Oh, sure, maybe the one or two true-believers who still watch MSNBC or read the NY Times will find it confusing why a supposedly minority-helping Democrat used such vile, racist implications when talking about Barack Obama. As a matter of fact, let's just have a quick recap of what Harry "Foot-in-Mouth" Reid said that's got everyone oh-so hot and bothered!

    March 29, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  25. John in San Diego

    Instead of using the term "wetbacks", we should call them "illegal aliens whose backs get wet crossing the Rio Grande."

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