Last week, the House Immigration Subcommittee held a hearing on immigration and farm labor. The substance of the hearing is likely to be eclipsed by the presence of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, who testified about his participation in United Farm Workers’ (UFW) “Take Our Jobs” campaign. While Colbert’s presence insured that it wasn’t your ordinary committee hearing, in many ways this hearing was simply more of the same rhetoric which demonstrated Congress’s inability to get beyond partisan sniping and sound bites and pass any type of immigration reform.

Minority witness Prof. Carol Swain and several of the Members argued that we do not need additional foreign low-skilled workers competing with American workers, particularly when unemployment levels continue to be high. They argue that if the supply of surplus labor were to diminish (i.e. highly restricted immigration), employers would have to pay workers more and improve working conditions to attract U.S. workers.

Apple orchard owner Phil Glaize testified that he does have difficulties recruiting workers to work in his orchard – Americans are better educated and choose not to do backbreaking farmwork. Glaize stated that he also faces stiff competition from apple producers from across the globe. He argues that if producers have to raise their wages significantly, they will no longer be able to compete with imported fruits and vegetables, and we’ll all be eating Chinese apples.

UFW’s Arturo Rodriguez testified that immigrant workers are easy scapegoats, but real problems have to be addressed. These problems include poor farm labor wages and working conditions. AgJOBS legislation, which is the result of a negotiation between UFW and growers, would legalize current unauthorized farmworkers, which would result in better wages and working conditions for all farmworkers. UFW started the “Take Our Jobs” campaign earlier this year to encourage unemployed Americans to take agricultural jobs. Since June they received over 8,000 requests for information, but only seven workers have accepted or have been trained for agricultural jobs.

One of those seven workers was Stephen Colbert, who spent one day in northern New York picking beans and packing corn. Colbert testified on his experiences working alongside farmworkers. He also discussed the fact that tens of thousands of acres of production and tens of thousands of agricultural jobs to Mexico, and 1.5 million acres of US farmland have been shut down.

While Democrats called for comprehensive immigration reform, Republican Members questioned the sincerity of the “Take Our Jobs” campaign, harped on “desperate aliens” who displace U.S. workers, called for additional enforcement, and expressed the notion that large scale deportations would result in millions of jobs for U.S. workers. Rep. Linda Sanchez, in turn, called out Republican committee members for their failure to support legislation to improve working conditions for American workers despite their insistence that their real concern is the wages and working conditions of unemployed Americans. Unfortunately there was very little factual content and very little truthiness.

Colbert hit it on the head when he asked why Congress isn’t doing anything, and sarcastically appealed to reason and suggested that Republicans and Democrats will work together in the best interest of the American people, as they always do.

Unfortunately the joke is on all of us.

Photo by josemalamillo.