Congressman Don Young Shows Us How NOT to Talk About Immigration

Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) has not had a good week. The 79-year-old decided to refer to migrant workers as “wetbacks” on a radio show this past Thursday. His remarks offended anyone who is aware of what the word means or its etymology. The term "wetback" is just one term used to describe undocumented immigrants which is outdated and dangerous. We are due for a change in vernacular. 

Here is the statement Rep. Young made to the radio station:  

"My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. "It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now.”

The term “wetback” is a racist slur, no way around it. It refers to Mexican immigrants who came to America by crossing the Rio Grande. The word was first used around 1929. Today the term is generally used to refer to all undocumented immigrants. Speaker of the House John Boehner strongly condemned Young’s comments and demanded an immediate apology. Young obliged Boehner by offering an apology a short time later. 

“I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska. 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.”

The apology falls flat for some people, like Lisa Navarette of the National Council of La Raza who says the term has always been offensive and that there was never an “okay” time to use it. The term has been used in the past by both Democrats and Republicans. Each time the word has been used, it's been followed up with a hastily worded apology, but apologies aren't good enough any more. We've got to do better.

The language we use to describe people matters. It is a problem to use the word “wetback” and it is a problem to use the word “illegal immigrant.” Both words are used to invoke a set of emotions about immigrants. When the word “illegal immigrant” is used we do not think of a person from England who has overstayed their Visa. The words are intrinsically linked to criminal behavior. 

Many Americans do not see a problem with using the word “illegal immigrant.” The media and politicians use it to refer to undocumented citizens without any additional thought as to what they are actually saying. The word is not neutral, it is steeped in prejudicial attitudes and beliefs. As columnist Jose Antonio Vargas points out, the term is used to "dehumanize and marginalize the people it seeks to describe." Using either term "wetback" or "illegal immigrant" is violently wrong.

The language we have allowed ourselves and our politicians to used has fundamentally tainted the way we refer to almost eleven million people. The use of these words limits our political discourse because it means we are always approaching the topic of immigration from a pejorative stand point. Both parties are to blame for this. Language that lessens our ability to see other individuals as people is an affront to everything America stands for. 

Republicans are no longer guaranteed to win elections by driving up support from white conservative voters on the issue of immigration. A 2005 memo from conservative strategist Frank Luntz illustrates exactly how language about immigration was used to dictate individuals emotions about the topic. Republicans now find themselves paying for their narrow mindedness on this issue, it’s not something that can be fixed with one apology.

As white people become the minority in America, both parties have found themselves responsible for dismantling the very prejudicial beliefs about immigration they helped to create.