US Rep. Don Young (R-AK) (Getty Images file)
(NBC) -- A Republican congressman from Alaska on Thursday used a slur referring to immigrants, particularly Mexicans, in an interview with a public radio station in his home state.
Amid a hot-button debate in Washington over how to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, Rep. Don Young, a 21-term lawmaker, referred to immigrant workers as "wetbacks" - a term that could threaten to inflame the debate about immigration reform.
"My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes," Young said in an interview with radio station KRBD. He was discussing the number of jobs that have been made irrelevant due to advances in automation. The interview was first surfaced by Buzzfeed.
"It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine," Young added.
While the veteran congressman wasn't referring directly to immigration reform, his remarks certainly cut against the broader Republican effort to repair the party's dismal image with Latino voters.
"Wetback" is a derogatory term for migrant workers, particularly Mexicans or Mexican-Americans who now reside in the United States.
In a statement, Young said he "meant no disrespect" in using the word.
"During a sit down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio this week, I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California," the statement said.
"I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.
"Migrant workers play an important role in America's workforce, and earlier in the said interview, I discussed the compassion and understanding I have for these workers and the hurdles they face in obtaining citizenship. America must once and for all tackle the issue of immigration reform."