By Robert Downen
Originally appeared in the Texas Tribune
The measure, endorsed by Gov. Greg Abbott, originally would have banned citizens of China, Iran, Russia or North Korea from buying land in Texas. Under a new version considered Thursday, the ban wouldn’t apply to dual citizens or lawful permanent residents.
Lawmakers in the Texas Senate have revised a Gov. Greg Abbott-backed bill that would restrict land ownership by entities from China and three other countries, softening the language to still allow dual citizens and lawful permanent residents of the United States to buy property in Texas.
Senate Bill 147 initially sought to ban the sale of Texas land to citizens, governments and entities from China, Iran, North Korea or Russia, drawing months of outcry. The bill’s author, Brenham Republican Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, said the legislation is aimed at stemming foreign influence in Texas agriculture and other sectors. It still prohibits the purchase or acquisition of property by a “governmental entity” of the four countries, by a company headquartered in the four countries, and by a company “directly or indirectly controlled” by a government of the four countries.
The original bill was heavily condemned by Asian American groups and lawmakers, who said its broad language would have made it impossible for many immigrants, entrepreneurs and green-card holders to buy homes or other property — while doing little to advance national security and adding to broader anti-Asian sentiment.
On Thursday, Kolkorst told a Senate committee that she supports a substitute bill that “makes clear that the prohibitions do not apply to United States citizens and lawful permanent residents, including dual citizens,” and allows such individuals to own properties that are homesteaded. After more than five hours of testimony Thursday — most of it in opposition — lawmakers did not vote on whether to advance the bill to the full Texas Senate.
“The goal of this bill is to legislate common sense safeguards against Russian, North Korean, Chinese, and Iranian authoritarian regimes,” Kolkhorst said in a statement this week. “It will not apply to those fleeing the tyranny of those governments who seek freedom in Texas. The committee substitute makes important clarifications, so the law targets agents of these adversarial regimes while not harming innocent Texans in pursuit of the American dream.”
The substitute legislation, which was offered by Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry, would also enhance oversight of the sale of property to individuals and entities associated with any country that “poses a risk to the national security of the United States” — as designated by the annual threat assessment analysis offered by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Buyers associated with such countries would be required to disclose such affiliations within 10 days of closing on a property. Sellers would then be allowed to revoke the sale, and the Texas attorney general’s office would be able to investigate potential violations and refer cases to courts for divestment proceedings.
The revisions were criticized heavily at a Senate committee hearing Thursday that included testimony by more than 100 people, including Asian American business owners, immigrants and advocacy groups. They said the legislation, even as revised, would codify anti-Asian discrimination into Texas law and disenfranchise one of the fastest-growing communities in the state.
“It would put all people who look like me — any Asians — into third-class citizenship because we’d have to prove our immigration status and where we come from when we want to purchase land or a house,” said Alice Yi, a senior strategy consultant at Asian Texans for Justice.
Yi and others recalled the long history of anti-Asian legislation in the United States, including Japanese internment during World War II and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Opponents also said the legislation would make the United States look more like the authoritarian regimes of the four countries — and increase anti-Asian hate crimes and rhetoric that have skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Are we competing with dictatorship regimes?” Yi asked lawmakers at a packed hearing of the Senate Committee on State Affairs. “Do you want to push us back to the 1800s?”
Houston Democratic Rep. Gene Wu, who immigrated to the United States from China as a child and has been outspoken against the bill, said the revisions make the proposals “less terrible” — but they are still deeply concerning. If lawmakers are worried about national security, he said, they should focus on governmental entities rather than make individuals prove that they are not threats to the United States.
“I’m Chinese, but I don’t represent the Chinese government,” he said. “This is an open invite to intentional discrimination — if someone comes to an open house that looks Asian, people are just going to say ‘Why risk it? No Asians.’”
Even before the revisions, Kolkhorst’s bill had support from top Texas GOP figures including Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Abbott, who said he would sign the legislation if passed by lawmakers. Kolkhorst has said her bill builds on legislation from 2021, under which state lawmakers banned Texas businesses and government officials from making infrastructure deals with interests from the four countries. That legislation, which passed unanimously, was filed in response to a Xinjiang-based real estate tycoon’s purchase of roughly 140,000 acres for a wind farm in Del Rio, a small border town near Laughlin Air Force Base.
On Thursday, Kolkhorst said her initial proposal was not “clear enough” on home ownership. But she pushed back against accusations that the legislation was racist, citing restrictions on foreign land ownership that have been proposed or are already on the books in numerous other states and in Canada.
“This is about national security,” she said. “At the heart and soul of it, it is about food protection. It is about mineral protection.”
Chinese investors own less than 1% of total foreign-held acreage in the United States, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2021 land report, while investors from Russia, Iran and North Korea collectively own less than 3,000 acres.
Kolkhorst’s bill comes amid a broader push against China by the GOP, both in Texas and nationally. In October, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives called for an investigation into foreign land investment in the United States. Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have both recently called for similar bans. And U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, recently proposed similar legislation at the federal level.