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Alaska's congressman regrets using 'insensitive term' for migrant workers

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 8:15 p.m.
FILE - In this Oct. 20, 2011 file photo, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska speaks in Anchorage, Alaska. Young, one of the most senior Republicans in the House, has apologized for using the racial slur “wetbacks” in referring to Hispanic migrant workers. Young, now in his 21st term in the House, said in an interview with Alaska's KRBD radio that when he was young, his father “used 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes” on their California farm. (AP Photo/Dan Joling, File)

WASHINGTON — Rep. Don Young, the gruff Republican who represents the entire state of Alaska, apologized on Friday for referring to Latino migrant workers as “wetbacks” in a radio interview.

“I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska,” Young said in a statement. “There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words,” Young said. “That word 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.”

The 79-year-old Young, the second-most senior Republican in the House, issued a statement late Thursday seeking to explain the remarks he made to describe the workers on his father's farm in California, where he grew up.

Young, discussing the labor market during an interview with radio station KRBD in Ketchikan, said that on his father's ranch, “we used to have 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes.”

He said, “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine.”

“Wetbacks” often refers to Mexican migrants who have entered the country illegally, and Latinos consider the word, which can be used to disparage all Latinos, to be highly pejorative.

His use of the word drew swift criticism from fellow Republicans.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Young's remarks were “offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds.”

Boehner said he did not care why Young said it: “There's no excuse, and it warrants an immediate apology.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the party offers a “beacon of hope” for those seeking liberty around the world and that Young's remarks “emphatically do not represent the beliefs of the Republican Party.”

Democrats also chimed in. “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.”

Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy organization, said Young should resign.

Young said that during the interview he had “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.”

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