WASHINGTON — Top Republicans denounced a veteran House GOP member's use of a racial slur to describe migrant farm workers, saying such language is not helpful as the party tries to improve its standing with Hispanics.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn all decried Rep. Don Young, who used the term "wetbacks" in a radio interview earlier this week. The Alaska congressman, in office since 1973, said late Thursday he "meant no disrespect" and explained the term was commonly used when he was growing up on a farm in central California.
Congressman Young's remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds," Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. "I don't care why he said it — there's no excuse and it warrants an immediate apology."
Young's timing could not be worse. A bipartisan group of senators and House members plan to unveil bills in April that would dramatically revamp the nation's immigration laws and include a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee is spending $10 million starting this year on outreach efforts to minorities, women and gay voters as the party seeks to become more inclusive and welcoming. The new outreach is the result of the GOP's scathing post-election "autopsy" report, which noted that much work needs to be done to attract Hispanics. In the last election, President Obama won 71% of the Hispanic vote.
Priebus, the national GOP chairman, said Young's words "emphatically do not represent the beliefs of the Republican Party."
"As I have continued to say, everyone in this country deserves to be treated with dignity and respect," he said. "Our party represents freedom and opportunity for every American and a beacon of hope to those seeking liberty throughout the world."
Cornyn, R-Texas, noted that migrant workers come to America looking for ways to improve their lives and those of their families.
"They do not come to this country to hear ethnic slurs and derogatory language from elected officials," Cornyn said. "The comments used by Rep. Young do nothing to elevate our party, political discourse or the millions who come here looking for economic opportunity."
Members of Congress drafting immigration legislation are also considering the number of work visas that are granted to immigrants in several areas of the economy, including high-tech workers, agricultural workers and lower-skilled fields. Many of those visas would end up going to people from Mexico, Central and South America.
Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said an immigration overhaul will only be possible through bipartisanship. He noted that Young, who has served beside many Hispanics in his decades in Congress, "should know terms like 'wetback' have never been acceptable."
"Now, more than ever, we must resolve the many issues of our broken immigration system," Hinojosa said. "But as we move forward, it's important that our Republican colleagues are mindful of how words have consequences. When elected officials use racial slurs, it sets back our nation and sets back legislators who are seriously working toward real, bipartisan solutions."
Contributing: Alan Gomez