In February 2001, a committee of the Iowa Senate held a hearing to consider a law that would require official state documents to be presented in no language other than English. The legislation was pilloried as anti-immigrant, prompting the chairman of the committee to allow two immigrants to testify about its effects.

One supported the bill, a resident who’d arrived from Italy nearly half a century prior. The other, an immigrant from Mexico who was in his early 20s, opposed it. Ultimately, the committee advanced the legislation, and a modified version of it became law.

It was sponsored by that same committee chairman, a legislator who would eventually become one of Iowa’s most infamous members of Congress: Steve King. He lost reelection in the 2020 Republican primary after being ousted from his House committees because of his overtly anti-immigrant and pro-White nationalist rhetoric.

King was elected to Congress soon after the English-only bill went into effect, signed by Gov. Tom Vilsack (D). (Calls to veto the bill went unheeded, like one in the Des Moines Register that attributed its genesis to the sponsors and their supporters feeling “uncomfortable with immigrants coming to their towns.”) But King wasn’t done advocating for the elimination of non-English material in his home state. A bit before the 2008 presidential election, he joined other petitioners to demand that the production of election material in languages besides English violated the law. A court agreed.

As a result of the legislation, one study released in 2010 argued, “eligible voters in Iowa who did not understand English were prevented from registering to vote in state and national elections.” So, in 2022, the Iowa chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) filed suit. On Wednesday, it prevailed, with a court determining that the 2008 decision should be voided and election-related material made available in non-English languages.

“The right to vote is not merely the ability to check boxes on a piece of paper,” the decision from district court Judge Scott Rosenberg read. “It is about being able to register, understanding what is on the ballot, and knowing when and where voting takes place. All of these facets are furthered by allowing counties to provide and accept voting materials in non-English languages.”

While this decision is obviously beneficial for efforts to engage non-English speakers in the democratic process in the state, it’s important to recognize that it comes as the percentage of state residents who don’t speak English has continued to rise.

Data from the Census Bureau analyzed by IPUMS indicates that the percentage of Iowa residents who spoke a language other than English jumped from 4.3 percent in 1990 to 5.6 percent in 2000 and 7.4 percent in 2010. The percent of Hispanic residents climbed from 1.1 percent to 2.6 percent to 5 percent in those years.

This pattern has been replicated in other states as well, of course. The number of Hispanic U.S. residents has climbed over the past 30 years, thanks both to increased immigration and children being born to Hispanic residents. Not all of those Hispanic residents in Iowa are Spanish speakers, certainly, but the percentage of Spanish speakers tripled from 1990 to 2010, while the percentage of other non-English speakers grew by 50 percent.

Nor was it only Spanish speakers who were affected by the law. But the initial prompt for the legislation was clearly a response to increased Hispanic immigration — as King would go on to make very clear.

Two decades later, the immigrant presentations at King’s committee hearing are telling. There is a sharp generational divide in the immigrant population, with the relaxation of immigration rules in the late 1960s meaning that more recent arrivals are more likely to come from Latin America, Mexico or Asia. Immigrants who arrived before that point — like the older gentleman who spoke — were more likely to come from Europe and to more easily assimilate into White America.

King was a manifestation of the backlash to that change. His opposition to immigration curdled into protectionism of White America. He was a MAGA Republican before there was a MAGA movement.

Iowa is still heavily White, of course. White Iowans are not going to become a minority anytime soon, much less anything shy of a substantial plurality. In fact, the increase in the Hispanic population in the state is relatively modest.

What the court determined this week is nonetheless a recognition of the reality. There are a lot of people in Iowa who don’t speak English fluently, some of whom eventually will. There are more such people than there were in 2002, when Vilsack signed the English-only bill into law, meaning that the effects of excluding them from political decision-making is more severe.

For anyone like King who might be concerned about the electoral ramifications of this decision, a point of reassurance. Barack Obama won Iowa in 2008 by nine points. In 2020, Donald Trump won it by eight.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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