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House Speaker admonishes fellow Republican for immigrant slur

House Speaker John Boehner holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
House Speaker John Boehner holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner on Friday condemned a reference to migrant workers made by fellow Republican Representative Don Young, calling the comments "offensive and beneath the dignity of the office."

Young referred to migrant workers as "wetbacks" in a radio interview aired in his home state of Alaska on Thursday, but issued an apology late in the day after criticism. The term is considered a slur against illegal immigrants who crossed into the United States from Mexico.

"My father had a ranch. We used to hire 50-60 wetbacks ... to pick tomatoes ... it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It is all done by machine," Young said in the interview.

The lawmaker was speaking about the economy and technology. In an initial apology, he said he did not realize the term was considered offensive.

In a later statement on Friday, Young called the term "insensitive" and "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," he said.

Boehner issued a statement saying there was "no excuse" for the comments.

"Congressman Young's remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds. I don't care why he said it - there's no excuse," he said.

Young, who has spent 40 years in Congress, also is facing a House ethics investigation into possible misuse of campaign funds, failure to report gifts and other offenses. The ethics investigation is similar to an earlier Department of Justice inquiry, which produced no charges.

(Reporting by Kim Dixon; Additional reporting by Yereth Rosen; Editing by Jackie Frank and Ian Simpson)

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