Immigration Bread and Circuses: An Open Letter to Stephen Colbert
I'm writing to applaud your appearance before the House Judiciary Committee during "Protect Our Harvest," the Immigration Subcommittee hearing on Sept. 24. I leave it to others to decide if your first formal appearance in Congress outdid your hosting of the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, but -- in my view -- you definitely gave farm-worker immigration the Colbert Bump. Your prepared remarks for the record were very good, but your live testimony was outstanding. You certainly know how to fill a hearing room (one representative noted that the House hadn't seen such a crowd since the impeachment hearings).
Predictably, narrow-minded observers in the media and the world of politics have criticized your testimony as a comedic stunt and waste of taxpayer dollars, even going so far as to demand that you apologize to the American people! How little do these critics understand history.
You showed your cred as a master historian, reminding the legislators that "it was the ancient Israelites who built the first food pyramids." Beyond your knowledge of American history, you also know well the wisdom of the ancient Romans, including the poet and writer, Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, known by more juvenile students as Juvenal. As you know, he coined the term, panem et circenses (bread and circuses), the time-tested, if cynical, observation that the best way to govern is to appease people with food and entertainment.
You did both:
- You gave us entertainment (asking why scientists can't grow vegetables that pick themselves since the "genetic engineers over at Fruit of the Loom have made great strides in human-fruit hybrids").
- You also offered sustenance. In the run-up to your testimony, as one of 16 fearless Americans, you accepted the "Take Our Jobs" challenge of the United Farm Workers. You worked for an entire back-breaking day on an American farm, picking beans (something you noted that even the "invisible hand" doesn't want to do) and packing ears of corn -- to be turned into high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient in virtually all the pablum that most Americans eat.
Describing the experience, tears came to your eyes, as you said:
I started my workday with preconceived notions of migrant labor, but after working with these men and women picking beans, packing corn for hours on end side by side in the unforgiving sun, I have to say -- and I do mean this sincerely -- please don't make me do this again. It is really, really hard work.
You also offered a way out of the controversy:
Maybe we could offer more visas to the immigrants who, let's face it, would probably be doing these jobs anyway. And this improved legal status might allow immigrants recourse if they're abused. . . . [It] just stands to reason to me that if your co-worker can't be exploited, then you're less likely to be exploited yourself. . . . [That] itself might improve pay and working conditions on these farms, and eventually Americans may consider taking these jobs again.
In reply to a question, you explained your underlying motivation for offering testimony:
I like talking about people who don't have any power and it just seems like one 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. . . .
'Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers [quoting Jesus]', and these seem like the least of our brothers right now. . . A lot of people are least brothers right now because the economy's so hard and I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish anything like that, but migrant workers suffer and have no rights.
I agreed with you when you also testified that "Americans are tough." But toughness alone won't put food on our tables or keep fruit and vegetables from rotting unpicked.
AgJOBS, the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, will get our produce to market and to table. Although you didn't read it, AgJOBS, a bill pending over several sessions of Congress, is now languishing as S. 1038 and H. 2414. Tamar Jacoby of ImmigrationWorksUSA has explained the need for AgJOBS in a letter to its lead sponsor in the Senate, Diane Feinstein:
Fewer and fewer Americans are interested in farm jobs. The vast majority of farm workers are foreign-born. And by helping to keep American agriculture afloat, this foreign labor force sustains literally millions of farm-dependent jobs in other sectors of the U.S economy. The problem is that the existing channel for seasonal farm workers to enter the country legally is far from adequate - it supplies workers to fill only two to four percent of available job opportunities. And as a result, the vast majority of foreign farm workers in the U.S. are believed to be unauthorized.
The beauty of AgJOBS is that it addresses this problem both retroactively and by looking forward. It alleviates the risk and instability that growers and farm workers face now - and promises an adequate future flow of needed farm labor by reforming the dysfunctional H-2A [temporary agricultural worker] program.
All of us know the sad legacy of the Bracero Program. The ending of that effort in 1964, however, did not solve the migrant labor shortage. While you continue offering us your evening circuses, please continue helping to make sure that the politicians finally deliver the bread.
Angelo A. Paparelli
p.s. If you want to know more about our dysfunctional immigration system, invite me on your show.