The 79-year-old Young, the second-most senior Republican in the House, issued a statement late Thursday saying he "meant no disrespect" in using the derogatory term to describe the workers on his father's farm in central California, where he grew up.
"Wetbacks" often refers to Mexican migrants who have entered country illegally, and Young's use of the word will not sit well with Republican Party efforts to temper its hard-line positions on illegal immigrants and current efforts in Washington to reforming the immigration system.
"Shame on Don Young," said Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas. "It is deeply disheartening that in 2013, we are forced to have a discussion about a member of Congress using such hateful words and racial slurs."
Young, discussing the labor market during an interview with radio station KRBD in Ketchikan, Alaska, said that on his father's ranch, "we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes." He said, "It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine."
In his statement, Young said he had "used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in central California. I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."
He added that during the interview, he had "discussed the compassion and understanding I have for these workers and the hurdles they face in obtaining citizenship" and said the country must tackle the issue of immigration reform.
Among his jobs before entering politics were teaching school to indigenous Alaskans and working as a tugboat captain in the Yukon. Since entering Congress in 1973, Young has been known for his hot temper, his salty language and his independent streak.
As resources committee chairman in the late 1990s, he took on environmentalists and the Bill Clinton administration in pushing for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and logging in Alaska national forests. He headed the transportation committee during much of the George W. Bush administration, during which he defied his own party's anti-tax positions by supporting an increase in the federal gas tax to help pay for bridge and highway construction.
It was under Young's chairmanship that the "bridges to nowhere," two proposed Alaska construction projects, became a symbol for questionable special projects inserted into spending bills.
He also is currently under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, which is looking into whether he failed to report gifts on his annual disclosure forms, misused campaign funds and lied to federal officials. The investigation comes from an earlier Justice Department probe into whether Young accepted gifts in return for political patronage. Young has said that Justice cleared him of those charges.
"I've been under a cloud all my life," he told reporters in Juneau Thursday. "It's sort of like living in Juneau. It rains on you all the time. You don't even notice it."
Young said he plans to run for re-election next year, saying he doesn't know anyone who can do a better job than he does in representing the state.