Friday, September 24, 2010

The Colbert Testimony

Yesterday, Stephen Colbert testified to Congress on the conditions migrant workers in this country face. Here's a video of his opening statement:

Taylor Marsh may have put the appearance most succinctly:
Stephen Colbert went to Congress to get attention focused on migrant workers. But he did something else, too. He made a mockery of the Legislative Branch, which so deserved this brilliant comedian’s derision for the feckless institution it has become.

Stephen Colbert: ‘I like talking about people who don’t have any power.’
To me, "feckless" and "congressional" are almost synonyms these days. That line Taylor quoted in her title is one of the most notable ones in Colbert's testimony while being questioned by Rep. Judy Chu (CA-32).

During questioning, one representative asked if Colbert had made a count of illegal aliens while he worked at a farm in New York. Colbert responded, according to ABC News:
Asked by the panel's ranking Republican, Lamar Smith of Texas, how many workers had joined him during his day on the New York farm, Colbert replied, "I didn't take a count. I'm not good at math." When Smith asked how many of them were illegal, Colbert replied, "I didn't ask them for their papers, although I had a strong urge to."

Stephen Colbert Takes On Congress, Sarcastically Argues for Farm Workers
A better answer, though, might have been a line that he'd used in earlier testimony "We have two signs at our border. One says 'No Trespassing'. The other says 'Help Wanted'." To me, that's been the crux of the immigration issue for decades, and none of the congressmen harumphing about "illegals" has ever really acknowledged that if there wasn't a demand for this type of labor, then they wouldn't be coming here.

For a brief time in my youth, I did farm work. I can tell you it's a tough way to make a living, and I doubt I could even do it now, at least not for very long. It's physically demanding, and even when the farmers provide decent equipment and make sure to provide sufficient rest breaks and water, it's still arduous work. One of the reasons that immigrant workers are preferred, though, is that their employers can get away with not providing a proper work environment, as this speech by Rep. Chu shows:

She told the story of a migrant worker who died from a preventable case of heat stroke, and how the farmer didn't even call an ambulance. He was fifty-three, one year younger than I am now.

Doing physical labor in uncomfortable positions in 100-plus degree (Fahrenheit) weather for days on end is a tough life. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never done it.

Stephen Colbert has done a public service to bring that to peoples' attention. As David Dayen notes, it's more than "serious" journalists have done for a long time.

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