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US Lawmaker Apologizes for Calling Latinos 'Wetbacks'

U.S. Representative Don Young addresses a Choose Respect rally in front of the Alaska state capitol on March 28, 2013, in Juneau. While drawing criticism for calling Hispanics "wetbacks," he also faces a separate ethics investigation.
U.S. Representative Don Young addresses a Choose Respect rally in front of the Alaska state capitol on March 28, 2013, in Juneau. While drawing criticism for calling Hispanics "wetbacks," he also faces a separate ethics investigation.
A U.S. lawmaker has apologized for using the derogatory term “wetbacks” to describe Latinos, after coming under fire from rights group and his own political party for his choice of words.

Republican Don Young, who represents the far northern U.S. state of Alaska in the House of Representatives, issued a full apology Friday.

"I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska,” he said in a statement. “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."

Young used the word “wetbacks” in an interview with local radio station KRBD.

“My father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 or 60 wetbacks and — to pick tomatoes,” the 79-year-old said, describing his days growing up on a farm in central California. “You know, it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

The word “wetback” was used years ago to describe Mexicans who illegally entered the United States. It evolved from the practice of crossing the waters of the Rio Grande River, which forms part of the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Political backlash

Members of Congress are grappling with how to shape new immigration legislation that will affect 11 million undocumented foreigners in the U.S.

Young’s Republican Party, which is aggressively courting Latino votes after flailing in the last election, sharply criticized Young for his comment.

Republican Senator John Coryn of Texas was just one of the politicians who took a stand.

“Migrant workers come to America looking for opportunity and a way to provide a better life for their families,” Cornyn said in a statement. “They do not come to this country to hear ethnic slurs and derogatory language from elected officials. The comments used by Rep. Young do nothing to elevate our party, political discourse or the millions who come here looking for economic opportunity.”

Power of language

Immigration has been a sensitive issue in the U.S. for a long time, and language used in the immigration debates has had long-term effects on social policies, according to a new study published this week in The American Sociological Review.

The study compares the policies and rhetoric used in the U.S. states of Arizona and California during the 1990s and shows that the tone of the debates affected welfare reform battles later.

At the time, policymakers in Arizona and California, home to 40 percent of the Hispanic population, were arguing that providing generous welfare benefits would draw illegal Hispanic immigrants across the border from Mexico.

Hana Brown, the author of the study, says policymakers and anti-immigration activists in Arizona and California successfully restricted the rights of undocumented immigrants, but the language each used had different impacts on welfare.

She says Arizona framed the debate in racial terms, calling undocumented foreigners “Mexicans” and “Latinos,” while California framed it in legal terms, calling non-citizens “illegal immigrants.”

In time, Arizona ended up adopting much stricter welfare policies than California, although they both faced similar immigration challenges.

Looking ahead

Brown says although race has largely been removed from the current immigration debate because of the strength of Latino voters, members of Congress may begin to use more divisive language when it comes to deciding who deserves benefits.

“It’s those linguistic distinctions, those ways of framing the debate, that can continue to have repercussions even after we have passed a comprehensive immigration reform,” she said.

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