Rep. Don Young uses slur to refer to migrant workers

In this Oct. 20, 2011 file photo, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska speaks in Anchorage, Alaska.
File,AP Photo/Dan Joling

Updated 4:16 p.m. ET

Longtime Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, described migrant farm workers as "wetbacks" in a radio interview Tuesday, later explaining that it was a term used during his childhood and he "meant no disrespect."

In the interview with KRBD, the 79-year-old Young spoke about how machines are changing the economy and the labor force, recalling, "I used to own - my father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. You know it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine."

The term "wetback" is used pejoratively to describe Mexican and Central American immigrants who wade across the Rio Grande river along the U.S.-Mexico border to enter America.

In statement released by his office after the interview garnered publicity, Young, who has represented Alaska in Congress since 1973, explained, "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."

"Migrant workers play an important role in America's workforce," he added, "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. America must once and for all tackle the issue of immigration reform."

Lupe Marroquin, the president of the Hispanic Affairs Council of Alaska, called Young's remark "bad form," telling the Anchorage Daily News that Hispanic Americans mean "more to the economy than just picking fruit." []

"It kind of opens your eyes to the way Don Young thinks," she said. "He didn't even pause. It's like that's just what he calls migrant farm workers."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Senate's second-highest ranking Republican, chided Young's choice of words.

"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 written 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."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on Young to apologize, saying in a statement, "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."

In response to the growing chorus of critics, Republicans and others, Young released an additional statement on Friday afternoon, explaining, "I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska. There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words."