The Least of our Brothers

Stephen Colbert testified today at a House immigration subcommittee hearing on immigrant labor, related to his work with the UFW in drawing attention to the conditions experienced by farmworkers in California fields. Earlier this year Colbert was one of just 7 people to take up the UFW’s challenge to white Americans to spend one day doing the hard work that farmworkers do every day.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (CA-16) invited Colbert to speak, who presented his remarks in character as a right-wing blowhard, in order to rebut immigrant-bashing claims that undocumented residents are “stealing jobs” from others. Colbert used humor to mock the anti-immigrant sentiment of people like Iowa Rep. Steve King by explaining that other Americans leave these very difficult jobs to others, and showing the basic injustice of further attacking those workers as somehow being responsible for our nation’s economic problems.

King, along with Fox News, threw a temper tantrum afterwards, denouncing Rep. Lofgren and Colbert for the testimony. But what they’re really reacting to is the fact that Colbert so effectively mocks the right-wing’s anti-immigrant sentiments. It’s clear that while King, Fox News, and their brethren can dish out vicious, dehumanizing attacks on our fellow Californians, they can’t take it when those immigrants and their defenders fight back – especially when they fight back with humor.

Colbert exposes the basic flaws and nonsensical nature of the anti-immigrant hysteria as well as anyone. That approach can only go so far; the immigrant-bashing as well as the conditions many farmworkers still face have serious consequences that need to be addressed directly. And Colbert understands this, as he explained after the hearing:

At the close of the hearing, Colbert dropped his TV persona and turned serious, saying he was using his celebrity to bring attention to farm labor because “these seem to be the least of my brothers.”

“Right now migrant workers suffer and have no rights,” Colbert said.

Colbert, a practicing Catholic, was making an obvious reference to the Bible, specifically the passage where Jesus explains that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” I’m not religious, but many of the anti-immigrant forces claim to be. If anything, that shot from Colbert might have as much power and potency as his mockery.

Whether it’s Colbert’s serious or humorous approach that ultimately gets people to care about farmworkers, there’s no doubt that they need and deserve the same rights to organize as other Americans. Colbert had a hard enough time during just one day in the fields – he didn’t see his friends and family die in the heat, as have numerous farmworkers in recent years. They deserve justice, not scapegoating.

UPDATE: David Dayen has an excellent interview with Rep. Judy Chu (CA-33), who lamented the fact that the media preferred to report on Colbert and not on the farmworkers he was talking about:

“I think that’s due in large part to the fact that it’s easier to write a story or newscript about how out of the ordinary it is to have a comedian testifying to Congress, than it is to really delve into problems facing migrant workers,” she continued. “Tragically, I think it’s safe to say that the lone day Mr. Colbert spent working in the fields earlier this year gave him a better understanding of this issue than many people covering this story possess.”

Dayen also included the full response from “serious” Colbert to a question from Rep. Chu, including “the least of our brothers” line:

CONGRESSWOMAN JUDY CHU: Mr. Colbert, you could work on so many issues, why are you interested in this issue?

COLBERT: I like talking about people who don’t have any power. And this seems like some of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t 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, you know, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, these seem like the least of our brothers, right now. And I know that a lot of people are the least of my brothers because the economy is so hard, and I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them or diminish it or anything like that, but migrant workers suffer, and they have no rights.”

That’s what really ought to be reported about Colbert’s testimony. The fact that it isn’t shows the media is unable to report on immigration or farmworkers unless they’re being scapegoated or used as an occasion for humor.

9 thoughts on “The Least of our Brothers”

  1.  Only 7 people showed up?

    That tells you all you need to know. White Americans by and large don’t want to pick fruit because they know of the woeful working conditions and low pay.

    Now ask yourself, why is it okay for immigrants to work these jobs under these conditions?

    Is it really on anybody conscience that Foxxcon workers are paid 80 cent an hour to make Ipads, Ipods, Nanos and PS3’s?

    No you’re wages have been pushed down since the 1970’s and instead of these companies building these things in America or even Japan, they build them on the back of cheap labor, keep all the profit and give you something for a reasonable cost, whatever the market will bear.

    This is 100% Racism pure and simple. White America and even some of Black America doesn’t think very much of immigrants especially those with Brown skin, save for Russians/Ukrainians but that’s for another post and another day.    

  2. While Stephen Colbert’s heart is certainly in the right place on this, whoever suggested that he testify “in character” should be drawn and quartered.

    Every news report of his testimony that I’ve seen or heard about said next to nothing about the plight of migrant workers, or especially the UFW’s “take our job” campaign and results. It was entirely focused on his “character” and his “humor.”  Even Anderson Cooper, who I’ve seen cover issues with compassion and emotion, treated this story like a big joke.

    My wife, who shares my viewpoint on social issues, was outraged by this.”There are so many people in this country who already think our government is a joke.” she said.  “This just makes it worse.”

  3. There probably would have been ZERO coverage if Colbert hadn’t been there.  At least the LA Times did report the serious side of Colbert’s testimony, including much of the quote cited above, and this was not only in the regular news article, but also in a commentary piece by James Rainey in the Calendar Section.

    IMHO this was clearly a stunt to draw attention to the situation, but bringing celebrities to testify is not new.  As much as we’d like to, who could forget that Elmo testified to Congress a few years back?  Sad that entertainment and politics must overlap in order for people to pay attention, but Colbert made the most of the situation in my opinion.

  4. Colbert’s effort to bring attention to this issue will be all for naught if it doesn’t mean greater pressure on Democrats and Republicans to support this bill, which is reather non-controversial (it already has 13 Republican co-sponsors, per DDay).  As he describes –

    [The] AgJobs bill is expected to allow current undocumented farm workers already in the United States a path to earn legal status, but the UFW analysis doesn’t expect it to add to the ranks of undocumented migrant workers. The migrants would need to pass criminal and national security background checks before earning legal resident status.

    I will be putting up a diary here in a minute which has a couple suggestions on quick things we can do to support the effort to improve the lives of the folks who bring so much of our food to market.    

  5. Colbert’s appearance on Capitol Hill brought some diffuse, mostly misfocused attention to the plight of migrant workers, but the segments he did on his show completely missed the target.  Last Wednesday he had an interview with Rep. Lofgren and Thursday he did his segment as a farm worker (both available for viewing at  I think his farm worker segment failed because he totally played it for laughs, not even attempting to do real work, barely breaking a sweat. It would have been far more effective for him to do the jokes, and then work for a whole day alongside the migrants and then testify about how hard it really is to do agricultural work.

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