Stephen Colbert Testifies In Defense Of Migrant Workers

Stephen Colbert: Political ninja.
(Photo credit: Erin Patrice O'Brien.
Courtesy of Comedy Central.)

I think a majority of people know that Stephen Colbert‘s shtick as a devout, if cheeky, Republican on The Colbert Report is an act, but I’ll bet there are some who don’t. Either way, he’s being taken seriously by more than Comedy Central execs and viewers these days. Today Colbert testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, which is considering the AgJOBS bill, which would allow migrant farm workers to come to the United States as guest workers and later become legal residents. Some opposed to the bill would undoubtedly argue those jobs should be given to existing American citizens. (But who wants to work for less than minimum wage?) The comedian and talk show host recently worked at a corn and vegetable farm in New York state for a day after United Farm Workers (UFW) President Arturo S. Rodriguez visited the show to discuss the UFW’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign. This eye-opening experience inspired Colbert to take up the cause of defending the rights of migrant workers.

The best part about his testimony (shown below) is that Colbert used humor to emphasize his points on the issue, which include legalizing migrant workers and making the pay scale and working conditions at their jobs better so that they other Americans would want to do them. (Hopefully we could also end the racist attitudes that often go along with the anti-illegals stance.) One of Colbert’s best quotes from his testimony was laced with irony: “This is America. I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venzuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian. My great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants.” When asked afterward why he was lending his support to the cause, he replied that migrant workers come here and pick our food (the cost of which, by the way, is reduced as a result), but then they have no rights.

Having lived on Long Island for over a decade, I have heard a lot of negative rhetoric about the influx of illegal immigrants, but what I find fascinating is how I don’t hear any anger towards people who hire illegals; everyone from local contractors to corporate behemoths. One person recently remarked to me that if illegal immigrants did not come to this country, they would not take jobs away. Hey, what about this thought: If the people hiring them were actually patriotic, wouldn’t they simply say no to them and declare that they only want to hire American citizens? After all, illegal aliens don’t just show up at your door; you have to seek them out. It all comes down to dollars and the power of exploitation in the end, and perhaps it is best to naturalize the undocumented workers so we can collect those tax dollars and hopefully raise pay rates and improve working conditions. For more on the story and what the Subcommittee asked Colbert after his testimony, click here.

While using a celebrity in a political forum can backfire — and many in those chambers were not amused, although the ploy unmistakably drew more media attention to the hearings — Colbert’s humorous testimony acts as both serious discourse and a satire of the often racist and hypocritical viewpoints against illegal immigration. It also emphasizes the irony that the best political commentary on television no longer comes from serious newscasters but comedians. Then again, humor is often the best way to defuse a situation and make you think about it in a different light, especially when you see your own shortcomings reflected in it. Hopefully that tactic will succeed here.

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