Republican Representative Jason Smith of Missouri has apologized for shouting “Go back to Puerto Rico” as Democratic Repsentative Tony Cárdenas waited to address the House.
Cárdenas is of Mexican descent, leading to concern that the statement was racially motivated, amid initial uncertainty over who made it, the Washington Post reported.
“There was about 50 mostly male Republicans staring at me, and no one would admit that they said it. I asked several times but no one owned up to the fact that they said it,” Cárdenas told The Hill.
Smith, the representative for Missouri's 8th congressional district, later called Cárdenas to apologize. However, his communications director Joey Brown, told Roll Call Smith was not addressing “any individual member.”
“Congressman Smith’s comment was directed at all the Democrats who were vacationing down in Puerto Rico last weekend during the government shutdown,” he said.
Some 39 members of Congress went to the U.S. territory for a three-day event hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ Bold PAC, to review the progress made since the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The conference was planned before the ongoing government shutdown.
Lawmakers were debating a Democratic bill on government funding stretching until February 28 at the time of Smith’s outburst. According to Politico, Republicans claimed Democrats shunned their requests for a roll-call vote after it passed via voice vote.
Following the incident, Cárdenas, the Representative for California's 29th congressional district, told The Hill: “When people blurt things out like that, it certainly sounds like the old saying, 'go back to where you came from.'
"Since I was a little boy I've heard that blurted at me many times, but it's sad that anything even remotely close to that would be said to me on the floor of the House.”
Detailing his phone call with Smith to Roll Call, Cárdenas said: “I told him I look forward to having a nice and respectful conversation when we return to D.C. on Tuesday. He agreed that we should get to know each other better.
“I appreciate his call and our future relationship.”
Smith’s apology comes as tensions continue to simmer after Iowa's Republican Representative Steve King defended the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” in a New York Timesinterview. He was subsequently removed from his committee assignments in Congress.