Stephen Colbert brings unique voice to guest worker program on Capitol Hill

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By DANIELLE ALBERTI

AND ANDREW POLK

Scripps Howard Foundation

WASHINGTON — The growing crowd outside the large wooden doors of the House Judiciary Committee milled anxiously as the hour drew near.

As the doors swung open, a diverse audience of suited Capitol Hill interns, union members clad in red “Take our jobs” T-shirts, United Farm Workers staffers and college-aged spectators flooded in to claim a limited number of seats.

In the crowd of news photographers surrounding the witness table, a declaration of “There he is!” caused a wave of long lenses to swing around – a false alarm from a cheeky photojournalist.

The Colbert Report

Stephen Colbert, the Emmy-winning host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, entered on time from a side door, setting off a flurry of camera shutters and a cry of “Thank you, Stephen!” from the still-shuffling crowd.

As the hearing began, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the subcommittee chair, asked the press to step back from the witness table and the crowd to maintain order, lest they be removed from the room.

“I haven’t seen this many cameras here since when, Madame Chair?” Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., asked.

“I think maybe it was the impeachment,” Lofgren responded.

Lofgren invited Colbert to speak before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugee, Border Security and International Law after he spent a day picking beans and packing corn in boxes at a farm in Upstate New York.

Colbert spoke in character, testifying that his experience, which was documented on his show Thursday, led him to believe that many Americans would be unwilling to do work of that nature.

“We have to do something, because I am not going out there again,” he said. “At this point, I break a cold sweat next to a salad bar.”

Guest worker program

The subcommittee is examining the guest worker program, which allows people into the country temporarily to do farm work. Many illegal immigrants also work in agriculture.

Growers say they hire the immigrants because they have a hard time hiring U.S. residents.

Opponents of the guest worker program say hiring immigrants, depresses wages and leads to poor working conditions, making the jobs unattractive to U.S. residents.

Five representatives of UFW, who began the “Take Our Jobs” initiative, which offers agricultural jobs to Americans, were in the audience to support Colbert and the union.

Arturo Rodriguez, president of UFW, said the initiative’s website has received more than 3 million hits in three months and 8,600 job inquiries. Of those, seven Americans have accepted farm jobs.

“We expected a lot more response, given high unemployment rates,” Erica Lomeli, UFW project coordinator, said as she waited with the crowd before the committee doors opened. “But people look at this and realize this is a hard job.”

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said that the claim that Americans were unwilling to work hard was offensive.

“Maybe amnesty supporters should spend less time watching Comedy Central and more time considering all the real jobs that are out there that require hard labor and don’t involve sitting behind a desk,” he said.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the spectacle was overblown.

“It’s no laughing matter to pretend that Americans don’t want jobs,” he said.

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