U.S. Lawmakers Seek to Preempt State-Level Bans on Foreigners Buying Property

A raft of states are looking to restrict property purchases by citizens of U.S. adversaries like China and Iran. Democrats in Washington are pushing back.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) speaks at a press conference on gun violence on the front steps of the Capitol. The event comes in the wake of the country's 13th school shooting of 2023, at Covenant School in Nashville, TN, on March 27, 2023. Congressional Democrats continue to call for an assault weapons ban, but Republican Senators and Representatives continue to block legislation banning or regulating these types of guns. (Photo by Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via AP)
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, speaks at a press conference on the front steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photo: Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via AP

In recent months, officials in a handful of states have proposed legislation aimed at preventing citizens from select foreign countries from owning property. In Texas, a bill to ban Iranian, Syrian, North Korean, Russian, and Chinese citizens from buying farmlands advanced to the state Senate. A bill in Florida banning citizens of most of the same countries from buying property near “critical infrastructure” was signed into law last month by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

With the bills moving forward, activist groups are mounting a challenge at the state level. Now, they are getting support from Washington, where a new bill in the U.S. Congress aims to stop states from discriminating on the basis of citizenship.

The federal legislation comes in response to the proliferating state-level efforts. Legislation to restrict property ownership based on citizenship has been signed into law in Arkansas and Tennessee, and similar measures are also being pushed forward in Kansas, Louisiana, Hawaii, and South Carolina. In some cases, the bills include even more far-reaching restrictions that would, for example, ban foreign citizens’ enrollment in public universities.

The potential for legislating discrimination based on citizenship has alarmed civil liberties groups, who are calling for a federal response to the measures.

“These bills are 21st century versions of the Alien Land Laws.”

“These bills are 21st century versions of the Alien Land Laws,” said Myriam Sabbaghi, national organizing manager for the National Iranian American Council, which is part of a coalition of groups opposing the laws, referring to a series of proposed laws a century ago banning foreign ownership. “These laws are being passed in southern states with relatively minimal national attention. It could be a slippery slope towards bringing more discrimination based on people’s ethnic identity.”

Public pressure roused by activists has helped stall some of these bills in state legislatures. One measure proposed in Texas earlier this year was significantly watered down after public protests and has not yet been signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.

The Texas bill was originally proposed in response to concerns over plans by a Chinese firm to buy land to build a wind farm, portions of which would have been near a U.S. military base. Although U.S. officials who reviewed the purchase did not deem it to be a threat, the Chinese-run firm involved in the purchase was ultimately forced to sell to a Spanish company.

Despite the questionable security benefits of the laws, DeSantis championed the bill in his state as “one example of Florida really leading the nation in terms of what we’re doing to stop the influence of the Chinese Communist party.” The measure in Florida, set to take effect on July 1, would ban property purchases within 10 miles of sites deemed to be critical infrastructure.

Chinese immigrants living in Florida are currently suing over the measure, with the American Civil Liberties Union saying that the laws “will have the net effect of creating ‘Chinese exclusion zones’ that will cover immense portions of Florida, including many of the state’s most densely populated and developed areas.”

The coalition of organizations opposing the bills around the country represent those targeted, including Asian and Iranian American communities.

The proposed federal measure against the state laws — introduced in the U.S. House in late May by Reps. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and Al Green, D-Texas — aims to preempt state legislation seeking to ban property purchases based on citizenship.

“We don’t want 50 states to have 50 different laws related to ownership of land. If there are rules around sensitive sites, that is something that we should legislate at the federal level and it should apply to individuals rather than targeting people based on their citizenship,” Green told The Intercept. “I think that we have to be very careful because many persons will take this type of legislation as an invitation to determine that people not born in this country, or who are not citizens, are unfit to have property or even to be in the country.”


Ban on Property Sales to Citizens of China, Iran, and Others Is Cruising Through Texas Legislature

The bill was announced by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. A press release announcing the bill last week took aim at the laws for unjustly discriminating against individual citizens of foreign governments.

“Buying real property – whether that’s a new house to call home or a commercial property to run a business in – is a critical step for immigrant families, students, and refugees to pursue the American Dream,” Chu said in the statement. “While there are specific, legitimate threats that these foreign governments and their state-owned enterprises pose to our national security, banning individuals from purchasing land or properties because of their citizenship, national origin, race, ethnicity, or immigration status is a flagrant assault on their civil rights and unconstitutional.”

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