On Capitol Hill, Colbert Speaks For 'Powerless'

The Two-Way

Watch Stephen Colbert testify on NPR's news blog.

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert testified before an immigration panel on undocumented farm workers Friday. Colbert spent a day working on a New York vegetable farm, observing that it was so hard that he would never again be able to watch Green Acres. The conservative Colbert persona said U.S. farms are far too dependent on immigrant labor, so the "obvious answer is to stop eating fruits and vegetables."

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DAVID WELNA: A Friday morning hearing on legalizing more than a million undocumented farm workers normally would not draw much of a crowd, but the room was packed as Stephen Colbert took a seat at the witness table. He was welcomed by Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers.

Representatives John Conyers (Democrat, Michigan): I'm so happy that you've help us fill the room. And I haven't seen this many cameras, since when, Madame Chair? It's been a while.

Representative ZOE LOFGREN (Democrat, California; Chairwoman, Immigration Subcommittee): Maybe it was impeachment but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. LOFGREN: ...it's been a long been time since we've had this kind of coverage.

WELNA: That was Immigration Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren. The California Democrat invited Colbert to the hearing after the two spent a long, hot day working alongside immigrants at a vegetable farm in upstate New York.

Colbert was one of four witnesses who testified.

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): I am happy to use my celebrity to draw attention to this important complicated issue. I certainly hope that my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to C-SPAN 1.

WELNA: The question on everyone's mind: Was this the Colbert who tweaks conservatives on TV by playing one of them? Or was this Stephen Colbert, immigrant workers' advocate. He left the answer ambiguous.

Mr. COLBERT: I dont want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.

WELNA: In the end, Colbert, the faux conservative, did alert mostly stony-faced lawmakers to what he called a very real shortage of workers to haul in the harvests.

Mr. COLBERT: Normally, I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market. But the invisible had of the market has already moved over 84,000 acres of production and over 22,000 farm jobs to Mexico, and shutdown over a million acres of U.S. farmland due to lack of available labor, because apparently even the invisible hand doesnt want to pick beans.

WELNA: Why, asked one lawmaker, would a comedian highlight the problem of undocumented farm workers?

Mr. COLBERT: I like talking about people who dont have any power. And this seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but dont have any rights as a result. And yet, we still invite them to come here. And at the same time, ask them to leave. And thats an interesting contradiction to me.

WELNA: And one that Congress has yet to resolve.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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