When you’re suffering from lack of attention—be you a speed skater in full-body Lycra, a soldier in an unpopular war or a union leader in an uphill battle—there’s one man you definitely want coming to your aid: Stephen Colbert, the newsman-satirist of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” This was a lesson driven home today when Colbert appeared at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in D.C. alongside Arturo Rodriguez, the head of United Farm Workers (a union once more powerful under the direction of Rodriguez’ father-in-law, Cesar Chavez). He’s not the first celebrity to be brought into the legislative limelight—Sigourney Weaver, Clint Eastwood and even Elmo have played ringers on the Hill—but the gimmick felt fresh all the same.
Colbert called Rodriguez this summer after hearing about the UFW’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign, a cheeky appeal for American citizens to come take the jobs of illegal immigrants working in the agriculture industry—those thankless, harrowing posts that many politicians say are being stolen from American citizens who desperately want to work. Rodriguez appeared on Colbert’s show in July, during which Colbert agreed to take one of those jobs for a day. And this morning Colbert came before the immigration subcommittee, ostensibly to testify about his experience but largely to bring attention to the issue of immigration reform, and bring attention he did.
The hearing was set to start at 9:30 a.m., but people started lining up outside the doors at 6:30 a.m. Activists and interns whispered about whether Colbert would be in character, wondering if he would assume the fake conservative personality he uses on his show as a foil to his liberal intentions. When Colbert finally entered the chamber a few minutes late and sat at the witness table, cameramen closed in like a Venus flytrap. A roomful of madly typing Mad Men secretaries would hardly have rivaled the noise of shutters clicking.
The chairwoman, California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who had gone out into the New York corn fields with Colbert on that fateful summer day, brought the session to order and gave members their time to speak. Central to everyone’s testimony was that timeless, incendiary question behind Rodriguez’s campaign: are illegal immigrants truly the only people willing to work these agriculture jobs? The hours are long, the conditions rough, the benefits non-existent, but should even the worst of America’s jobs be jealously guarded for Americans themselves?
“It’s an insult to me to hear that Americans won’t do this work,” said ranking Republican member Steve King, an Iowan congressman. But “study after study” shows that people would rather have no income than take these “back-breaking” jobs, countered Rep. Howard Berman, the man who introduced the House’s AgJOBS bill, a path-to-citizenship measure for farm workers that Rodriguez was there to defend. “If action is not taken … we’re jeopardizing the future of the agriculture industry here in the United States,” Rodriguez told TIME the day before. (Chasing the AgJOBS dream, which includes bipartisan measures like allowing agriculture workers to stay in the country but only if they pay a fine and learn English, is looking like a more attractive goal now that comprehensive immigration reform has proved so politically untouchable.)
Colbert was the last to give his prepared statement, and he listened with his trademark caricature of rapt attention (think head cocked, eyes squinted, gratuitous nodding) as he waited his turn. He also smiled and winked, scribbled notes and looked, at times, like he was really trying not to laugh, perhaps considering how even the most serious forum is not impenetrable to him, despite his being the guy who does a regular segment called “Stephen Hawking Is Such An A-Hole.”
One committee member, Rep. John Conyers, thanked Colbert for bringing so much attention to the issue and then asked the comedian to leave, as a nod to the seriousness of the matter at hand. Colbert’s first response was “No hablo Ingles.” He then appealed to Lofgren, saying that she had extended the invite and she could rescind it. She did not.
When his turn to speak finally came, Colbert went totally off-script from the straight-forward testimony he had submitted. It was Colbert the character, the spoonful of hilarious sugar that makes people swallow current affairs. “I am happy to use my celebrity to draw attention to this important, complicated issue,” he began. “I certainly hope that my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to CSPAN-1.” On the subject of illegal workers in the agriculture industry, he professed a rather elaborate position: “This is America. I don’t 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.”
After a serious interlude of debates, where California representatives took on the Vanderbilt University professor there to represent the these-are-jobs-for-Americans side, Colbert finally had a genuine moment. And as with many other issues, Colbert betrayed himself as a follower of the corniest, most noble journalist’s creed: being a voice for the voiceless. “Migrant workers suffer and have no rights,” he said gravely to Rep. Judy Chu, who had asked why he had taken up Rodriguez’ cause. They’re one of the least powerful people in the United States, he said, and someone needs to encourage American to treat them better.