WASHINGTON — One of the most veteran House Republicans apologized Friday for using “wetbacks” to describe the migrant workers his family once employed in California, calling it “insensitive” and saying, “There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words.”
The comment by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, drew a rebuke from the House speaker and others, and it flies in the face of his party’s efforts to improve its appeal to minority groups, particularly Latinos.
In an interview taped Tuesday, Young, 79, was discussing how advances in technology have reduced the need for some types of workers and referred to his family’s farm in the Sacramento Valley. “My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” he told KRBD-FM, a public-radio station in Ketchikan. “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”
The statement drew wide condemnation. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, denounced it: “Congressman Young’s remarks were offensive … I don’t care why he said it; there’s no excuse, and it warrants an immediate apology.”
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Young first issued a response Friday that explained his use of the word, but he did not apologize for it. “I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California. I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays, and I meant no disrespect,” he said.
The term, which arose because illegal immigrants from Mexico swam or waded the Rio Grande to cross the border, was once common. In 1954, the federal government launched a deportation drive aimed primarily Mexicans who crossed illegally and called it “Operation Wetback.” But the word has long been considered a slur.
Friday afternoon, Young apologized in a second statement. “That word,” Young said, “and the negative attitudes that come with it, should be left in the 20th century, and I’m sorry that this has shifted our focus away from comprehensive immigration reform.”
Less than two weeks ago, the Republican National Committee (RNC) released a detailed election post-mortem that dissected the party’s weaknesses, noting “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country” and calling on the GOP to “demonstrate we care about them too.”
Among his constituents in Alaska, where Young is the only House member, his willingness to take on the perceived excesses of the federal government has long outweighed his reputation as irascible. But Michael Carey, a columnist and former editorial-page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, noted that Young has not previously drawn such pointed criticism from national GOP leaders.
“Typically, people have always said, ‘Oh, that’s Don Young.’ He’s treated like the weather; you can’t do anything about it,” Carey said.
Democrats wasted little time seeking to highlight the party’s latest misstep. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called it “deeply disheartening” that a member of Congress would use “such hateful words and racial slurs.”