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Originally published Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 5:21 PM

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Be a farmworker, immigrants challenge American critics

In a tongue-in-cheek call for immigration reform, farmworkers are teaming up with comedian Stephen Colbert to challenge ...

The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Tired of being targeted by politicians and anti-immigrant activists, farmworkers are teaming up with comedian Stephen Colbert to challenge unemployed Americans: Come on, take our jobs.

The United Farm Workers is encouraging the unemployed — and any Washington, D.C., pundits or anti-immigrant activists — to apply for some of the thousands of agricultural jobs posted with state agencies as harvest season begins.

All applicants need do is fill out an online form under the banner, "I want to be a farmworker" at www.takeour-jobs.org, and experienced field hands will train them and connect them to farms.

According to the Labor Department, three of every four farmworkers were born abroad, and more than half are illegal immigrants.

Proponents of tougher immigration laws have argued that farmers have become accustomed to cheap labor and don't want to raise wages enough to draw in other workers.

Those who have done the job have some advice: First, dress appropriately.

During summer, when the harvest is in full swing in California's Central Valley, temperatures hover in the triple digits. Heat exhaustion is one of the reasons farm labor consistently makes the Bureau of Labor Statistics' top 10 list of the nation's most dangerous jobs.

Second, expect long days. Growers have a small window to pick fruit before it is overripe.

Third, don't count on a big paycheck. Farmworkers are excluded from federal overtime provisions, and small farms don't have to pay the minimum wage. Fifteen states don't require farm labor to be covered by workers' compensation laws.

Any takers?

"The reality is farmworkers who are here today aren't taking any American jobs away. They work in often-unbearable situations," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers. "I don't think there will be many takers, but the offer is being made. Let's see what happens."

To highlight how unlikely the prospect of Americans lining up to pick strawberries or grapes, Comedy Central's "Colbert Report" plans to feature the "Take Our Jobs" campaign July 8.

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The campaign is being played for jokes, but the need to secure the right to work for immigrants is serious business, said Michael Rubio, supervisor in California's Kern County, one of the nation's biggest agriculture-producing counties.

"Our county, our economy rely heavily on the work of immigrant and unauthorized workers," he said. "I would encourage all our national leaders to come visit Kern County and to spend one day, or even half a day, in the shoes of these farmworkers."

Hopefully, the message will go down easier with some laughs, said Manuel Cunha, president of the California grower association Nisei Farmers League, who was not a part of the campaign.

"If you don't add some humor to this, it's enough to get you drinking, and I don't mean Pepsi," Cunha said, dismissing the idea that Americans would take up the farm workers' offer.

California's agriculture industry launched a similar campaign in 1998, hoping to recruit welfare recipients and unemployed workers, he said. Three showed up.

"Give us a legal, qualified work force. Right now, farmers don't know from day to day if they're going to get hammered by ICE," Cunha said, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "What happens to my labor pool?"

His organization supports AgJobs, a Senate bill that would allow those who have worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days in the previous two years to gain legal status.

The bill has been proposed in various forms since the late 1990s.

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