Stephen Colbert, in GOP pundit character, testifies on immigration in D.C.

Comedian Stephen Colbert testifies on Capitol Hill in front of the House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration.
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010

The comic pundit Stephen T. Colbert, with tongue in cheek but aimed to lash, blustered his way in conservative character through a four-minute speech about immigration reform in front of a House subcommittee Friday morning, a fake blowhard before a panel of real pontificators. His message: Working on a farm is so hard that Americans don't want to do it, so immigration and labor laws should be reformed to allow illegal crop workers a clean path to citizenship.

"I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican," Colbert testified. "I want it picked by an American, sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian."

Colbert, the geekily debonair host of Comedy Central's satiric "Colbert Report," was a magnet for media professionals, tittering Hill staffers and out-of-place war protesters. "Thank you for saving our corn, Stephen!" cried one attendee, nonsensically, as Colbert took a seat before the committee in Room 2141 in the Rayburn House Office Building.

His posture was ramrod straight, his suit dark, his tie raspberry, his shirt crisp, his hair parted cleanly -- and perhaps ideologically -- on the left. He spent most of the hearing with a look of delight on his face, his mouth partly open in a crooked and amused state, like a doe-eyed freshman in his first class at college.

In her opening statements, the chairwoman of the immigration subcommittee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), compared Colbert to Bono. She thanked him for using his celebrity to illuminate the plight of undocumented farm workers, who make up 50 percent to 75 percent of seasonal crop workers.

"Maybe we should spend less time watching Comedy Central and more time thinking about real jobs that are out there," said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who added that he respects American workers who "prefer the aroma of fresh dirt than the sewage of American elitists."

Colbert smiled wide, obviously respecting the dig, as the crammed gallery murmured.

A panel of expert witnesses tossed out labor statistics during their opening statements as Colbert futzed with his shirt cuff and stole glances at his watch. He and Lofgren met on a vegetable farm in upstate New York last month. For a taped segment, Colbert participated in the United Farm Workers' "Take Our Jobs" program, designed to illustrate that illegal farm workers are not taking jobs that Americans are willing to do. Out of 8,600 inquiries, only seven people have taken a full-time farmworking job through the program.

"Most of the food on your table has been harvested and cared for by unauthorized workers," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers and a recent guest on "The Colbert Report." "U.S. agriculture would need to hire 1 million citizens to replace the immigrant laborers. Mass deportation of agriculture workers would cause the collapse of the agriculture industry as we know it."

"I'm a free-market guy," Colbert said when it was his turn to speak. "Normally I'd leave this to the invisible hand of the market. . . . But the invisible hand has moved farm work to Mexico" because of the lack of available labor in the United States. If Congress passes the AgJobs Act -- intended to provide legal farm labor and secure the rights of immigrant workers -- "Americans may consider taking jobs once conditions are better," Colbert continued, sarcasm creeping across his face. "I trust both sides will work on this together in the best interests of the American people -- as you always do."

Some committee members and witnesses criticized the Take Our Jobs program -- "The name itself implies the jobs belong to someone else," said Vanderbilt University law professor Carol M. Swain -- and the idea that Americans are averse to toil, especially in rocky economic times. King at one point implied that Colbert may not have actually loaded corn during his visit to the New York farm, and Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Tex.) yielded his time so the funnyman could respond.

Colbert: "Were you implying that I was not actually doing work I was depicted as doing?"

King: "I was watching you unloading crates rather than loading crates. It looked like corn was going in the wrong direction."

Gonzalez: "Which direction is the corn going, Mr. Colbert?"

Colbert: "I put it in the trucks and iced it down so it wouldn't go through the process where sugar turns to starch. I was a corn-packer. I know that term is offensive to some people because corn-packer is a derogatory term for a gay Iowan."

Gonzalez: "I will definitely reclaim my time at this point."

Toward the end of the otherwise ponderous and inconclusive two-hour hearing, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) asked Colbert why he was interested in the issue.

The arrogant anchorman's mask of sarcasm appeared to vanish.

"I like talking about people who don't have any power," he said, the bravado gone from his voice as he worked his way to a downer of a punch line. "It seems like the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come here. . . . And at the same time, we invite them here and ask them to leave. . . . I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them [but] migrant workers suffer and have no rights."

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