Iowa Public Television


Colbert Meets Congress

posted on October 1, 2010

Despite a September rally on Wall Street, Americans' view of the economy turned decidedly grim last month, as mounting concerns over the pace of recovery weighed heavily on a key index of consumer sentiment.

The New York-based Conference Board announced this week its Consumer Confidence Index fell to 48.5 in September. That's down nearly five points from August, and is the barometer's lowest reading since February.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported Friday that new homes sold at the second-slowest pace on record in August. Last month's 288,000 new home sales were unchanged from a month earlier and were down 29 percent from the same period in 2009.

And for the third time in the past four weeks, the number of initial claims for jobless benefits declined last week offering a sign that employers are cutting fewer jobs.

All told, about 8 million jobs were lost during the recession, including nearly 1.2 million positions in rural counties. Critics of U.S. immigration policy often add that an influx of undocumented workers also is making it difficult for Americans to find work.

To counter that impression The United Farm Workers of America, or UFW, launched the "Take Our Jobs" campaign last summer, welcoming legal residents to experience the rigors of farm labor for themselves. According to the UFW, more than three million people visited its "take our jobs" web site, but only 6,800 expressed an interest in farm employment and less than a dozen actually committed to any farm labor.

Late last week, UFW representatives -- and one rather unusual witness -- briefed House lawmakers on labor trends in America's fields.

Colbert Meets Congress One half congressional testimony and another half media circus, comedian Stephen Colbert snagged headlines last week during a House immigration hearing.

Only minutes after Colbert entered the House chamber, Democratic committee chairman John Conyers asked the Comedy Central star to leave.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan: "Thank you for submitting your written statement. But I think its best you leave so we can discuss the details of this issue."

Stephen Colbert: "I'm hear at the chairwoman's request and if she wants me to leave then I will."

Colbert stayed at the hearing and detailed his one-day experience as a farm worker.

Stephen Colbert: "I'll admit, I started my day with a preconceived notion of immigrant labor. I have to say, and I do mean this sincerely: Please don't make me do this again. It is really, really hard."

Despite stern reactions from members of Congress, Colbert's over-the-top antics brought some attention to the serious topic of immigrant farm labor in America.

Arturo S. Rodriguez, President of United Farm Workers of America: "America needs these workers. Everyone is this room is directly sustained by farm laborers every day. If you had a glass of Florida orange juice with your breakfast this morning, it is almost certain the oranges that went into that juice were picked by unauthorized workers. If you had milk on your cereal, it is likely that the workers who milked the cows didn't have the right papers."

The President of United Farm Workers of America has championed the group's tongue-in-cheek "Take Our Jobs" campaign. According to the UFW, three-quarters of all crop workers in American agriculture were born outside the United States. The UFW campaign states that illegal immigrants currently working as farm laborers are willing to train any Americans wishing to "take their jobs." According to Rodriguez, 8,600 people have filled out an online application for work, but only 7 have been placed in farm jobs.

But some congressmen at the House hearing disagreed with the UFW assertions towards the American labor force.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa: "If you look hard enough and pay wages that the marketplace demands then you don't need illegal labor."

Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan: "Mr. Congressmen, are you telling me that you can find us Americans to work these jobs? Are you committed to working with me on this issue? If you are, then we can get started after this hearing."

AgJobs, a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate, would allow individuals who have worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days over the previous two years to achieve some form of legal status. The UFW estimates more than one million farm workers would benefit. But the AgJobs bill, which has been proposed in various forms throughout the past decade, has fallen short of necessary Congressional support.

Colbert's comedic actions raised the profile of the UFW campaign but Congressional leaders contend any comprehensive immigration reform is nowhere close to final passage.

Tags: comedians immigration jobs news reform