Comedian Colbert Tips Hearing Towards Farmworkers' Amnesty

By David North on September 25, 2010

You could tell by the title of Friday morning's hearing "Protecting America's Harvest" that the House immigration subcommittee's agenda was tilted towards agri-business.

Then stir in the fact that the chair, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), used to be an immigration lawyer, and the well-ballyhooed presence of comedian Steven Colbert who is vehemently pro-migrant worker; finally garnish with a mix of witnesses that was three-to-one for Open Borders and you get a hearing that did not go well for the limited immigration advocates.

I am writing this before I see the press coverage, but I am sure that the reasoned arguments of Rep. Steve King (R-IA), the ranking member about how a 40 percent increase in farm labor wages would cost the average American household $8 a year, and bring oodles of workers into the fields, will be lost in the glitter and the humor that Colbert brought to the gathering.

Now I have been going to congressional hearings on farm labor issues for half a century, sometimes as a witness, and I must say that the presence of Colbert did something I have never seen before. It not only filled the room, it filled a spillover room as well.

The first clue as to the popularity of the hearing came as I entered the Rayburn House Office Building at about quarter of nine in the morning, 45 minutes before the hearing was to start. There were photographers just outside the building, and I asked them who they were waiting for – "Steven Colbert" was the answer.

Even though I was early for the event, there was, at my arrival, a long line outside the Judiciary Committee hearing room; I was one of 100 or so relative latecomers that wound up watching CCTV in another room.

It was a replay of an array of old legislative alliances, with the extra spice provided by Colbert. There was Zoe Lofgren playing the role created by former congressman and now CIA Director Leon Panetta (D-CA), a mainstream Democrat in a partially agricultural district; he had been central to the shockingly loose farmworker amnesty provisions of the 1986 IRCA Act. There were other Hispanic members, more numerous than a quarter of a century ago. There were black members, again identifying with their Hispanic legislative brethren, rather than their own unemployed constituents; there was an apple farmer (who did not get to say much) and finally there was the leader of the farmworkers union, wanting amnesty above all.

The most senior of the black members was John Conyers (D-MI), chair of the full Judiciary Committee; the farmer was the third-generation owner of a Virginia orchard (or bunch of them) Phil Glaize of Vienna, Va.; and filling in (in a sense) for the late Cesar Chavez was Arturo S. Rodriguez, the current president of the United Farm Workers of America. Rodriguez, a savvy witness, had brought along five middle-aged, legal resident farmworkers who sat behind him at the hearing, all senior members of his union.

Against this array of political, economic, and ethnic clout there was one witness, Dr. Carol Swain, a black professor at Vanderbilt, and four of the six members of the Republican side of the subcommittee, King, Lamar Smith (R-TX), ranking Republican of the full committee, Dan Lungren (R-CA), the former Attorney General of that state, and Ted Poe (R-TX).

Professor Swain gave spirited arguments about how the near total lack of immigration enforcement had twisted the farm labor market and how it did not make sense to further loosen these labor markets with amnesty and guestworker programs, but she was fighting a lonely battle. Further, she was treated with needless hostility, I thought, by Conyers with his pro-comprehensive immigration reform attitude.

Conyers, in another awkward (and I suspect thoughtless) moment, asked Colbert to leave the room, and not present oral testimony. (Conyers apparently had not yet figured out that Colbert was on his side of the issue.) Colbert, looking a little startled, said that he was there only because the chair had asked him to be present and if the committee wanted him to leave he would do so; she then smoothed things down, and Conyers later reversed himself.

Lungren, who apparently would like to see a guestworker program along the lines of the old Bracero program, and King both asked some penetrating questions, but they were badly outnumbered. King cited the work of UC-Davis Professor Phil Martin on the relatively light impact of a wage increase for farm workers on the typical American household budget.

Colbert, of course, was funny. On my way out of the hearing I heard a fellow attendee with a cell phone telling his friend about one of Colbert's stories about his day picking beans in the fields of an up-state New York produce farm. He said, more or less, "One of the first things I learned was that I kept having to bend over, why is the dirt at the level of my feet, rather than that of my waist?"

He called for federal funds to remedy that situation.

A few apple orchards are, in fact, pruned so that most of the fruit is waist- or shoulder-high, but that was not mentioned at the hearing.

Colbert and Lofgren had both participated in a demonstration mounted by Rodriquez’ union called "Take Our Jobs," in which the union seeks to prove that the jobs held by the mostly illegal farm workers are so grim that no American will seek them. The union's point – the nation should legalize the presence of people doing this work.

The union claims that it had 8,000 some serious inquiries about the program and that only seven people had actually been recruited for full-time farm work. (Professor Swain, I think appropriately, called the whole exercise a "publicity stunt.")

Colbert was playing his comic role through most of the hearing, but I think he slipped out of it towards the end when Rep. Judy Chu, another California Democrat and another CIR supporter, asked Colbert why he went into the demonstration. His response, again approximately, was that "I have always been interested in the powerless, and I can't think of anyone in America more powerless than migrant farm workers."

It sounded genuine.

Colbert's written testimony was both sober and extremely short, and, as one of the members pointed out, had virtually no connection with his more spirited oral testimony.

There was practically no discussion of legislative details during the morning, but Rodriquez said of the AgJobs bill, which his union and the growers both want, that it would require three to five more years of farm work if an illegal alien wanted to legalize his status under that bill. This is an interesting proposal and is quite unlike the 1986 IRCA legislation, which allowed legalized farmworkers to move immediately into other jobs. I can visualize the negotiations between the union and Hispanic activists on one hand, and the growers on the other, as they worked out a joint position on this matter.

I can hear one group saying: "But that's indentured servitude," and the other replying "if they don't have to stay in farmwork for a while we won't back the bill." It must have been a vigorous, interesting discussion.

But back to the hearing. By noon it was all over, and another huge crowd of newsmen, photographers, and the curious was gathered outside the hearing room, presumably wanting one more glimpse of the star of the show.