Published March 29, 2013
Alaska Rep. Don Young issued an apology Friday for using the term "wetbacks" when discussing migrant works, acknowledging it is an "insensitive term" that he says should have been left behind with the last century.
The apology came after House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican Party leaders denounced Young on Friday for using the term.
The 79-year-old Young, the second-most senior Republican in the House, had issued a statement late Thursday saying he "meant no disrespect" in using the derogatory term to describe the workers on his father's farm in central California, where he grew up.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle made clear Friday they did not find the explanation acceptable.
"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," Boehner said in a brief statement.
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the comments "do nothing to elevate our party, political discourse or the millions who come here looking for economic opportunity."
"Wetbacks" often refers to Mexican migrants who have entered country illegally. Young, an Alaska congressman, discussing the labor market during an interview with radio station KRBD in Ketchikan, Alaska, said that on his father's ranch, "we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes." He said, "It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine."
He added that during the interview, he had "discussed the compassion and understanding I have for these workers and the hurdles they face in obtaining citizenship" and said the country must tackle the issue of immigration reform.
"Shame on Don Young," said Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas. "It is deeply disheartening that in 2013, we are forced to have a discussion about a member of Congress using such hateful words and racial slurs."
As resources committee chairman in the late 1990s, Young took on environmentalists and the Bill Clinton administration in pushing for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and logging in Alaska national forests. He headed the transportation committee during much of the George W. Bush administration, during which he defied his own party's anti-tax positions by supporting an increase in the federal gas tax to help pay for bridge and highway construction.
It was under Young's chairmanship that the "bridges to nowhere," two proposed Alaska construction projects, became a symbol for questionable special projects inserted into spending bills.
He also is currently under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, which is looking into whether he failed to report gifts on his annual disclosure forms, misused campaign funds and lied to federal officials. The investigation comes from an earlier Justice Department probe into whether Young accepted gifts in return for political patronage. Young has said that Justice cleared him of those charges.
"I've been under a cloud all my life," he told reporters in Juneau Thursday. "It's sort of like living in Juneau. It rains on you all the time. You don't even notice it."
Young said he plans to run for re-election next year, saying he doesn't know anyone who can do a better job than he does in representing the state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.