Last week, the Texas Senate passed a bill putting restrictions on land purchases by citizens of China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea, raising alarms among civil liberties advocates who fear it is the first step toward legally enshrining discrimination based on national origin in the state.
The bill, Senate Bill 147, would ban the purchase of “real property” by citizens from China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea, even if they are in the country legally on certain visas. The bill defines “real property” as “agricultural land, an improvement located on agricultural land, a mine or quarry, a mineral in place, or a standing timber.” Currently awaiting review by the Texas House of Representatives, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has publicly vowed that he will sign it into law if it reaches his desk.
“Discrimination against certain groups has often been justified by invoking national security concerns. This bill and others like it echo this shameful history.”
“The bill perpetuates anti-immigrant bias and racism by unconstitutionally encouraging discrimination on the basis of immigration or citizenship status and national origin,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for the civil rights group Project South. “Discrimination against certain groups has often been justified by invoking national security concerns. This bill and others like it echo this shameful history.”
The current iteration of the bill, which has gone through multiple revisions, is a watered-down version of a far more draconian proposal that would have completely banned all property sales, including home purchases, to citizens and dual nationals of the four targeted countries.
The announcement of the original measure last year triggered widespread protests by Chinese and Iranian American activist groups in Texas. In response to the pressure, the bill was narrowed to focus on purchases of farmland by individuals deemed to be foreign citizens but created exemptions for citizens and permanent residents of the U.S.
Civil liberties groups say that the changes do not go far enough and are asking for the measure to be killed in its entirety. Even with the changes, these groups say that it will contribute to a climate of fear and suspicion targeting immigrant groups.
“The original text of this bill released in November was its most xenophobic and racist version, and its announcement triggered a lot of fear and panic in the community,” said Lily Trieu, executive director of the advocacy group Asian Texans for Justice. “In February, the author came back and amended the bill to address some concerns, though still not enough to make it good policy.”
She added, “This bill continues to conflate individuals with the governments of their countries of origin, even though many people in the United States who hold foreign citizenship are here because they were opposed to those governments.”
The bill was first introduced by Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst last year. While Kolkhorst attempted to roll back extreme measures, activists say that a Pandora’s box has already been opened by the proposed legislation. (Kolkhorst did not respond to a request for comment.)
A copycat bill was introduced last month targeting citizens from the same four countries and would ban them from attending public universities in the state if passed.
“The rhetoric that people from these countries pose a danger and should be unwelcome is already out there,” said Trieu. “People are already using this bill to discriminate against people from these four countries.”
Though the bill in Texas has faced headwinds from activist groups, a similar measure targeting the same four countries, as well as citizens of Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria, is also being pushed ahead in Florida by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The introduction of S.B. 147 has hit Iranian American communities in the state particularly hard. Many Iranian Americans are still feeling the lingering effects of Trump-era suppression of their civil liberties, most notoriously the so-called Muslim ban that targeted Iranians and citizens of several other Muslim-majority countries for exclusion from entry to the U.S.
The ban became a signature part of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant governing platform. The list of seven countries that were subject to the ban was originally taken from a previous visa-waiver exclusion list built under President Barack Obama’s administration that targeted these states as “countries of concern.”
From there, it was a simple matter of escalation for Trump to take the list and use it to exclude citizens of those countries from entering the U.S. entirely. Iranian American activist groups say that they fear the bill from the Texas Senate could lead to a similar slippery slope, where the precedent of a ban on large farmland purchases could be used as a means to introduce discriminatory restrictions on other rights they hold in the U.S.
“This bill looks like 21st century version of the Alien Land Laws that targeted Asian immigrants in the 19th century and should be rejected as unconstitutional by legislatures,” said Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council. “The Iranian American community has already had this experience where a measure that may seem a little more reasonable at first is then used as justification for far more extreme actions targeting people based on their national origin.”
The original impetus for the bill was concern over plans by a Chinese firm to buy land to build a wind farm in Texas, portions of which would have been near a U.S. military air base. Although U.S. officials who reviewed concerns about the purchase determined that it would not pose a security threat, the firm, controlled by a Chinese billionaire named Sun Guangxin, was forced to sell its interest in the project to a Spanish company.
Last month, a coalition of human rights groups issued a letter to Abbott, the Texas governor, calling on him not to sign the bill, arguing that it would contribute to a climate of intolerance and fear in the state.
“We are deeply concerned,” the letter said, “that Asian, Iranian, Russian, and other communities are being singled out and denied the ability to do what every other similarly situated individual in America has the right to do: build a life and put down roots in the place that they call home.”