Colbert Takes Washington

Comedian Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report”  (pronounced col-BEAR, and re-POUR…..and yes, as anyone who semi-regularly watches the show knows, Stephen would be horrified at my use of the word “bear” in the phonetic spelling of his name) took to Washington today to testify as a part of the “Protecting America’s Harvest” hearing in our nation’s capitol.

Colbert, the fake TV pundit, appeared before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigrants, Refugees, and Border Security “in character”—that is, as his neo-conservative, anti-intellectual, Republican mocking persona that has become such an icon alongside his Comedy Central counterpart, Jon Stewart.  Earlier this week, as a part of his “Fallback Position” series exploring jobs available should his TV career falter, Colbert visited a farm in upstate New York to join the ranks of the migrant farm workers who are responsible for getting the food we eat from the fields to our tables.  (Watch part one of the series here, part two here.)

Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who appeared in part one of Colbert’s report, invited Colbert to participate in the hearing presumably to draw attention to the plight of migrant farm workers, and to the “Take Our Jobs” campaign of the United Farm Workers union.  And it worked; Lofgren commented at the outset of the hearing that she hadn’t seen so many cameras in the meeting room “since the impeachment.”

(It should be noted that the Democratic leadership is certainly not alone in tabbing celebrities to testify before congressional committees on subject matter that would appear to be far removed from their area of expertise.  After all, as Colbert himself pointed out on his show Thursday night, Republicans once summoned “Elmo,” the “Sesame Street” puppet character to testify.)

All of the attention generated by Colbert’s appearance is terrific for such an important subject.  But the overwhelming bulk of the coverage has focused solely on Colbert and his sarcasm filled opening statement (which, we were told by subcommittee member John Conyers, was significantly different from the written testimony he had submitted beforehand).

Not nearly enough attention has been paid to the actual discussion and issue at hand of the hearing itself.  And that’s a shame.

Joining Colbert in testifying were Carol Swain, professor at Vanderbilt University; Phil Glaize, farm owner and Chairman of the U.S. Apple Association; and Arturo Rodriguez, President of the United Farm Workers of America.

Dr. Swain testified that her studies led her to the conclusion that there was, in fact, no shortage of American workers willing to man the fields.  She cited the “experiment” of one Arkansas farmer who spent $250,000 of his own money on a program to provide transportation, better working conditions, and decent wages to Arkansans wanting to work harvesting his crops.  Through this program he was able to provide jobs to dozens of African-Americans who were otherwise out of work and short on prospects.  Swain held up this example as a triumph and an example that we don’t need migrant farm workers after all.

But on questioning, her argument fell apart.  When Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) pointed to Dr. Swain’s written testimony that stated the grower in question discontinued the program because he couldn’t get any federal or state funding for it, she refused to acknowledge that perhaps he had stopped because it was too costly and unprofitable, and the only way to make it work would be with significant government subsidies.

Mr. Glaize had an entirely different take on the situation.  As a farm owner and operator himself, he says the migrant workforce plays a vital role in keeping his business alive.  Harvesting his apple crops, he says, is a time sensitive activity, and must be done within five days of the fruit ripening or else it will rot on the tree.  It takes a certain level of skill to prune ripe apples without bruising the delicate fruit (which severely decreases their value) at a fast enough pace to harvest the entire crop in time.  Even one day’s delay could cost the growers millions of dollars.

Glaize made two critical points:  Farmers are usually leveraged to the hilt, exhausting every last line of credit available to them in order to get their crops to market.  Even the slightest delay in getting the workforce to the crops could cause growers to lose a significant portion of their produce, causing them to ultimately default on their loans and lose at least part of their farm in order to pay them back.  He cited one instance where the federal government held up Jamaican workers coming into the country legally on H-2A visas, sending the farming community into a panic.  The Jamaican workers were ultimately allowed into the country just in the nick of time, and the farmers were subsequently able to get their fruit to market.

Farmers, Glaize says, face a dilemma.  They are forced to choose “between a reliable, skilled and illegal workforce, or a bureaucratic, unreliable H-2A program.”

Arturo Rodriguez, the UFW President, told the committee about his group’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign.  The workers were tired of hearing that they were such a drain on our society; that they were taking jobs away from qualified American workers; that there was a ready supply of workers LEGALLY here just champing at the bit to take over their jobs.  It was the workers’ idea, Rodriguez said, to initiate the “Take Our Jobs” campaign.

“Take Our Jobs” has generated over three million hits to the UFW website, with over 8,000 people applying for agriculture jobs.  To date, according to Rodriguez, there are only seven (7) out of the 8,000 people who have taken up farm work full-time.

Steve King (R-IA) and Dan Lungren (R-CA) appeared to dismiss the “study after study after study” that Lofgren says prove that there simply are not enough American workers willing to live the migrant workers’ lifestyle for the wages migrant workers earn ($18,000-20,000 per year, Lofgren says).  The Republican subcommittee members unanimously opposed any kind of program that would allow illegal migrant workers to earn legal status, since it would in effect “send them to the front of the line.”  Farm owners, they say, should choose from the available legal work force; that there is a backlog of people waiting to get into the country legally, and it would be unfair to those people seeking to enter the right way.

Republicans were also challenged by their Democratic counterparts on their demand that by increasing the wage workers earn, agricultural jobs would become more attractive to legal workers.  Ted Poe (R-TX) used the example of offshore oil jobs, and how well paid those workers are.  The trouble with Poe’s example is that workers on oil rigs earn high salaries due to the extremely dangerous nature of the work, which calls for hazard pay rates.

Republicans in Congress excoriate farmers for using illegal migrant workers, yet refuse to take steps to make it easier and more efficient for them to enter the United States legally.  They criticize farmers for not paying workers enough, yet refuse to support raising the minimum wage.

Critics have been quick to chastise Congresswoman Lofgren for the “publicity stunt” of inviting Stephen Colbert to participate in the hearing.  But at least he has attempted to shed light on a controversial subject through his platform as host of a nightly talk show.  And although his use of satire in the segments of his program and in his live opening statements appeared to belittle the topic, his point was still clear.

But it was this “jokester,” as MSNBC put it, that perhaps came up with the most poignant moment of the hearing:  When asked by Judy Chu (D-CA) why he chose to highlight migrant farm workers on his show, Colbert uncharacteristically broke character with a very honest, straightforward, and enlightening reply:  “I like talking about people who don’t have any power,” he said.  “And it seems like some of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result.  And yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time ask them to leave.  That’s an interesting contradiction to me, and, you know, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, and these seem like the least of our brothers……..Migrant workers suffer, and have no rights.”

Watch the entire hearing here.  It’s long (2 hours), but worth the time.

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