Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young. (Photo/Getty Images)

Alaska Rep. Don Young backtracks after saying father’s farm employed “wetbacks”

Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young apologized after he made headlines for his choice of words to describe the workers in his father’s farm: “My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” said the Congressman in an interview with KRBD in Ketchickan, Alaska.  “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now.  It’s all done by machine.”

After the Congressman’s comments were harshly criticized on Twitter and other online outlets, the 79-year-old, 21-term legislator apologized.

“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,” said Young in a statement to the Alaska Dispatch. “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect,” Young said. “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,” added the Republican Congressman.

Rep. Young then said Congress should “once and for all” pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) Chairman Rubén Hinojosa  sent a statement reacting to his comments saying Young “has served alongside Hispanics in Congress since 1973, so he should know terms like ‘wetback’ have never been acceptable.”  California Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra said “perhaps this helps Americans better understand why it is taking Republicans so long to catch up with the rest of America in support of a sensible solution to fix our broken immigration system.”

Latino Republicans also denounced the statement.  “Rep. Don Young’s comments were unacceptable, offensive, and obvious that he doesn’t speak for conservatives,” said Hispanic Leadership Network’s Jennifer Korn. “I’d like to thank leaders like Speaker Boehner, Sen. Cornyn and others for taking a strong stand and making it clear this kind of intolerance has no place in the conservative movement.”

Korn was referring to the statement made by Senator John Cornyn, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican. “Migrant workers come to America looking for opportunity and a way to provide a better life for their families.  They do not come to this country to hear ethnic slurs and derogatory language from elected officials,” Cornyn said in a statement. “The comments used by Rep. Young do nothing to elevate our party, political discourse or the millions who come here looking for economic opportunity.”

The Congressman’s statements that the term “wetback” was just a common term in his youth did not fly with many who criticized his use of words, as seen in tweets like this:

Latino Decisions political scientist Sylvia Manzano agrees.

“There is no ambiguity about that,” says Manzano.  “The fact is, Young used a pejorative, derogatory slur that never had any other connotation other than a negative one.”

Young’s comments come at a time when many Republicans are vigorously coming out against what many in the party have called anti-Latino comments.  Republican National Committee chair Reince Preibus recently said the party has to “change its tone” when it comes to Hispanics, African-Americans, women and gay Americans.  Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who recently started a super PAC to raise money for pro-immigration reform Republican candidates, said recently to NBC Latino that “some people put a stain on the party, and we have to counteract that.”

Today, RNC’s Preibus addressed Young’s remarks, saying, “offensive language and ethnic slurs have no place in our public discourse.”

RELATED: RNC sets sights on Latinos; poll shows immigration reform key ingredient

Manzano says the problem is derogatory comments do have a real and lasting impact.

“No matter what policies Republicans pass, if someone in the party is using that term, you’re going to be in trouble,” says Manzano, adding,  “Someone can use it in ad, for example.  And if a Latino voter goes to the comments section on a Republican website and it’s full of nasty words, you better believe Hispanics are not going to feel welcome.”

Manzano says the Republican party needs to ensure it does not only outreach, “but inreach. When words like the one used by Young are used, people can’t help but wonder, what would he say when microphones are not around? It makes people very uncomfortable.”

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