WASHINGTON (AP) — The second-most senior Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives apologized Friday for referring to Hispanic migrant workers as "wetbacks" in a radio interview.
"I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska," Rep. Don Young said in a statement after both Republican and Democratic lawmakers called on him to apologize.
"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, who represents the entire state of Alaska, issued a statement late Thursday seeking to explain his remark after using the derogatory term to describe the workers on his father's farm in central California, where he grew up.
Young, discussing the labor market during the interview, said that on his father's ranch, "we used to have 50-60 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 Hispanics consider the word, which can be used to disparage all Hispanics, to be highly pejorative.
Young's explanation on Thursday wasn't good enough for lawmakers from either political party. His use of the word drew swift criticism from fellow Republicans working to temper the party's hardline positions on illegal immigrants and to improve Republican standing among Hispanic voters, who went overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama in the November election.
Since entering Congress in 1973, Young has been known for his hot temper, his salty language and his independent streak.
The Republican leader of the House, Speaker John Boehner, said Young's remarks were "offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds." Boehner said he didn't care why Young said it; "there's no excuse, and it warrants an immediate apology."