WASHINGTON - Top Republicans denounced a veteran House GOP member's use of a racial slur to describe migrant farmworkers, 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 language used by Rep. Don Young, who used the term "wetbacks" in a radio interview 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 in the USA. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the GOP lawmakers crafting an immigration bill, echoed Boehner's comments on Twitter.
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 considering the number of work visas 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 be possible only 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."
Lisa Navarette, a spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group, said she is heartened that GOP leaders were quick to denounce Young. She said the use of such a slur coming from a Republican in this day and age highlights the challenge for the GOP.
"It's an education issue," she said. "It's not a matter of being nicer. They've got some fundamental work to do to educate their party."
By Catalina Carnia