Alaska Rep. Young apologizes for calling Hispanics 'wetbacks'

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) issued an apology Thursday after using the term "wetbacks" to describe Latino workers on his family farm.

"During a sit down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio this week, 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," Young said in a statement to the Alaska Dispatch.

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Young made the comment during an interview with KRDB-FM radio in Alaska about the current immigration reform legislation being debated in Congress. Young said he feared that the country had exported too many vital industry jobs, while agreeing that automation and technological advances had reduced the number of labor positions available.

"My father had a ranch; we used to have 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes," he told the station. "It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine."

In the statement to the Dispatch apologizing for his remarks, Young says that he believes Congress should "once and for all tackle the issue of immigration reform."

"Migrant workers play an important role in America’s workforce, and earlier in the said interview, I discussed the compassion and understanding I have for these workers and the hurdles they face in obtaining citizenship," Young said.

Nevertheless, the use of the racial epithet could set back Republican efforts to appeal to Latino voters. President Obama won more than seven in 10 Latinos in the 2012 election, and the Republican National Committee (RNC) concluded in a report released earlier this month that the party needed to improve outreach to Latino and other minority voters.

"The RNC cannot and will not write off any demographic, community, or region of this country," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said at an event unveiling the report. 

Priebus also stressed that the party needed to recast its tone, an acknowledgment that off-the-cuff remarks during the 2012 election cycle had hurt the party's image with female and minority voters.

"It's about being decent," he said. "People don't deserve to be disrespected."

Young, 79, has represented Alaska's lone congressional district since 1973. He is currently facing an ethics investigation over charges he improperly accepted gifts.