Alaska congressman attempts to clarify use of term ‘wetbacks’

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Rep. Don Young

Rep. Don Young

(CNN) — Longtime Alaska Rep. Don Young, 79, attempted to clarify Thursday his use of the derogatory term “wetbacks” to describe immigrant workers in an interview earlier this week.

“I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California,” the Republican congressman said in a statement issued to a local television station in Anchorage. “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.”

Young, Alaska’s sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week. Talking about how technology is affecting the economy, he referenced an anecdote from his family’s farm in California.

“My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” Young said. “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

The word is widely considered an ethnic slur and generally refers to those from Mexico who come to the United States illegally by crossing the Rio Grande River.

The 21-term congressman later issued the statement, which didn’t come as a full apology but sought to explain his reasoning behind using the word. The word was used by the U.S. government in the 1950s for “Operation Wetback,” a massive crackdown on illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Young’s comments come at a time when the Republican Party is attempting to rebrand itself and expand its outreach to various minority groups, chief among them are Latinos.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, blasted Young in a statement, saying migrant workers come to the country for work and opportunities, not to “hear ethnic slurs and derogatory language from elected officials.”

“The comments used by Rep. Young do nothing to elevate our party, political discourse or the millions who come here looking for economic opportunity,” he continued.

GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana focused on the impact of damaging comments earlier this year, when he said at the Republican National Committee winter meeting that the GOP has “to stop being the stupid party” and should start talking “like adults.”

“It’s no secret we’ve had a number of Republicans this year damage our brands with bizarre and offensive comments,” he said. “I’m here to say we’ve had enough of that.”

CNN’s Ashley Killough, Steve Brusk and Peter Hamby contributed to this report.