GOP lawmaker calls Hispanic workers ‘wetbacks,’ apologizes

During a discussion about ongoing challenges to the economy Thursday, Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young referred to Hispanic workers as "wetbacks," an ethnic slur used to describe migrant workers. He has since apologized.

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

The term "wetback" is a pejorative term that has been used to describe workers from Latin American countries who swim across the Rio Grande to reach the United States.

Young's comments come just weeks after the Republican National Committee called for candidates and lawmakers to soften their tone when discussing Hispanic Americans and immigrants in an effort to engage Latino voters after getting only 30 percent of their vote in the 2012 presidential election. Republicans are currently working with Democrats in Congress to shape a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration system, and comments like Young's could serve as a distraction from those bipartisan efforts.

After a public outcry over his remarks, Young formally apologized in a written statement Friday afternoon.

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

Before he issued his apology, several prominent Republicans rushed to condemn Young's usage of the word, including House Speaker John Boehner.

"Congressman Young’s remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds," Boehner said in a written statement. "I don’t care why he said it – there’s no excuse and it warrants an immediate apology.”

This article has been updated.