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Oleander on Weeds and Immigrants

Martin Lopatka
The Nature Conservancy; Creative Commons

Folks, since 1937 Kansas has had a Noxious Weed law.  Among those on the Most (not) Wanted list are some fearful dangers:  Kudzu, Bindweed, Canada and other Thistles, Russian Knapweed, Bur Ragweed, Pignut, Johnsongrass and Sericea Lespedeza.

A Johnson County extension agent recently warned:  weeds are prolific, and in no time “the neighbors, the vacant lots and even the street corners give way to these weeds.”  He also noted:  “Another characteristic of noxious weeds is their ability to adapt.”

These words remind me of what Richard Mabey wrote in his book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants:  “The Twentieth Century, with its global trade and world wars and ubiquitous paranoia, brought with it not just new weeds, but new conceptions of what weeds might be, and do.  Weed anxiety took root.  The vagabond plants were not seen not just as nuisances, but as actively dangerous.”

Folks, the language for weeds is eerily similar to the language for immigrants.  Unwanted plants and unwanted people, it seems, thrive where others don’t want to be, where it's too dry, too wet, too cold, or too warm.  They adapt, take root, take over.  They also thrive where we don't want them, multiply too quickly, take up too much space and too many resources.  They crowd out what is more valuable.  They are hard to get rid of.  They are vigorous and aggressive, and dangerous.  This is the thinking, anyway.

So yes, as against Noxious Weeds, laws are passed against people.  Plants are hunted down, pulled up, sprayed, flattened, uprooted, even bulldozed.  Non-native people are forced to prove citizenship, to have identification at polling places, in schools, and at social service agencies.  They are banished from our borders, parents separated from children in our zeal to keep our land pristine for natives.

But in Kansas, immigration has always been an economic engine.  Historically, we’ve been recruiters, inviting people from the eastern states after the Civil War, from Germany when the Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads had land to sell, from Mexico during that same rail boom, from Eastern Europe to work in Southeast Kansas mines, from Latin America for oil and gas, from Vietnam and South America and Africa to work in meat packing plants.  These people were no more dangerous than Turkey Red Winter Wheat, another immigrant.  We’ve brought in clovers, sorghum, alfalfas, soybeans and all sorts of valuable non-native plants.  Do we fear them?  No. 

My advice:  don’t base laws on fears, base them on realities.  The green of winter wheat, the brown face in the small town café.  Neither is noxious.  Both should be welcome.  Both help make Kansas what it is.