Notes From My Purple State

by Jesse Nathan on February 27, 2007

“Come to Kansas Where the Waiters Make $2.65 and Everyone Speaks—Thank God!—Nothing But English”

Dorothy and Toto would be ashamed: the Kansas legislature decided to spend the last week making life more painful for the state’s most vulnerable citizens. In votes driven by Republican majorities, the Kansas House of Representatives passed a measure approving English as Kansas’ “official language” and, two days later, rejected a bill that would have raised the state’s atrociously low minimum wage. At $2.65 per hour, Kansas ranks lowest in the nation. Most of the workers making that pitiful sum are in the service and agricultural industries—and many of them are immigrants, making this week’s legislative activity a double whammy on their already beleaguered backs. “This is a crime against humanity,” Representative Geraldine Flaharty (D-Wichita) told the Journal-World. “Kansans deserve better.”

Attempting to make states—or even the whole country—a sea of English-speakers, at least officially, is nothing new. In 1780, John Adams proposed an amendment to the constitution preserving the “purity” of English by making it the new country’s official language. That one got denounced as undemocratic and squelched within hours of his proposing it.

Still, English-only pushes have happened so often, and in such predictable waves, that’s it’s easy to see why and when such zealous attitudes arise: whenever conservatives sweep people into a frenzy about immigration. In the late 19th century, WASPs fearful of Italians, the Irish, Jews, and Asians landing on American soil sought protection in such xenophobic laws.

Again in the 1980s, under the watch of rightwingers in the Reagan administration, laws promoting English as “the” language of the United States inspired politicians from coast-to-coast in racist crusades against foreign tongues.

Which brings us to the present.

With minute-men vigilante squadrons manning our south western borders and U.S. officials in the milky-white (minus a token Condi Rice) Bush administration cracking down even on the border between Canada and the U.S., it’s no surprise that English-only campaigns are popping up again. Yes, unfortunately, history repeats itself—even the ignorant chapters.

Enter the Kansas House of Representatives, led by a hodgepodge of GOP xenophobes. On Tuesday, February 20, the House passed HB 2140 by a 118-2 vote—the lone dissenters, in fact, were Republicans—establishing English as the official language of the state of Kansas. According to Democratic leadership, (apparently spineless and weak-kneed) Democratic lawmakers backed the bill in the end because of a last minute amendment that would include $500,000 “to help fund English classes for adult immigrants.”

Problem is, on closer inspection, this $500,000 is suggested, not guaranteed. If that money doesn’t materialize in next year’s budget (and GOPers could easily and discreetly kill that funding), then this law comes as an added burden on immigrants, many of whom don’t have the time or resources to invest in language classes.

And even though the legislation leaves localities with the option of printing official documents in other languages, the symbolic—and racist—weight of the measure wasn’t lost on the two dissenters. Rep. Thomas Owens, a Republican from Overland Park, told the Lawrence Journal-World that the bill was rooted in anti-immigrant reactions “born out of fear more than anything else.”

Representative Dale Swenson, a Republican from Wichita, called the bill “nearly empty”—and correctly pointed out how many other issues, like healthcare and education, were left unaddressed while legislators codified fear in HB 2140. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, one of the bills’ leading sponsors, Republican Don Myers, championed the law as “a workforce building bill, an economic development bill.”

Say what?

Hilarious as Myers characterization is in and of itself, consider this: two days later, the GOP leadership committed what is arguably an even greater crime than English-only mandates: it rejected legislation that would raise Kansas’ minimum wage from its abysmally low rate of $2.65.

What did you say about the workforce, Mr. Myers?

For the 19,000 Kansans reportedly making this wage—many of them trying desperately to hold down two or three jobs to cover the bills—Representative Benjamin Hodge (R-Overland Park), one of the leading naysayers on raising the minimum wage, offered only that the state ought to steer clear of “European-style socialist bills.” “We all know,” added GOP Representative Mike Kiegerl (Olathe), “that Marxism is alive and well only in academia.”

So while Kiegerl, Hodge and others flail their paranoid political arms, Kansans remains stuck in the Reagan era: the last time the state raised its minimum wage was 1988. That was before the Internet, folks. Before IPods, Blogs, and Bill Clinton. But considering this state still makes unionizing seem like communism, it’s not a shocking fact. Meanwhile, twenty-eight states have set their minimum wages higher than the federal standard—and even the feds are considering an increase to $7.25 this year.

When it rains it pours, and unfortunately it poured on poor Kansans this week—particularly those struggling to learn a new language in a new country. Though Kansas sleeps a little better these past few years under the progressive governorship of Kathleen Sebelius, the legislature, it seems, remains clutched in the grips of dodos.

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