House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Friday condemned the use of the term "wetbacks" by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, one of the party's most senior members of Congress.
Young's statement, his quick apology, and Boehner's statement that the remark was "beneath the dignity of the office he holds," come at a particularly sensitive time for the Republican Party in its relationship with Hispanic voters.
Latinos voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in November, and the GOP is attempting to navigate calls for changes in immigration law, with more party leaders now backing a so-called path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which is opposed by many conservatives.
Young used the term "wetbacks" in describing Hispanic migrant workers who used to pick tomatoes on his father's family ranch. He made the comments in an interview released Thursday with an Alaska radio station.
"My father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 or 60 wetbacks and — to pick tomatoes," Young said. "You know, it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine."
In a later statement, Young, 79, who has spent four decades in Alaska's only U.S. House seat, said he "meant no disrespect" in using the term, a slur for Mexicans crossing illegally into the United States. The Alaska Dispatch reported the apology:
"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, and earlier in the ... 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."
Boehner's statement read:
"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."