Despite changes, some fear property purchase restrictions unfairly single out people based on national origin

Senate Bill 147 would prevent some from four countries the U.S. has declared adversaries from buying farmland or energy-producing property in Texas.

By Shelly BrisbinApril 26, 2023 1:12 pm,

The Texas Senate advanced a bill on Tuesday that would restrict purchases of farmland and energy-producing property in Texas by people and entities associated with four countries.

Supporters of Senate Bill 147 say the measure, which affects people and entities associated with China, North Korea, Russia and Iran, is needed to protect national security. Opponents say it’s too restrictive of immigrants and that its passage would stoke anti-Asian hate.

As the Texas Newsroom reported earlier this week, the bill has changed significantly since its introduction. U.S. citizens and lawful residents who are also citizens of the listed countries would now retain the ability to buy property in Texas, while government entities and Visa holders from those nations would not. And the kinds of property affected have been dialed back.

State Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, has concerns about the bill. He told Texas Standard that the bill discriminates against people based on their country of origin in ways that he says violate the U.S. and Texas constitutions. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: As I understand it, as it stands now, this bill would allow U.S. citizens and lawful residents who also are citizens of the four countries mentioned to buy land here, but some other immigrants from those countries would be prevented. What is your understanding when it comes to individual restrictions now and why are you still concerned about this?

Gene Wu: So our concern from the very beginning has been that the law would blanketly cover an entire immigrant class – an entire class of people – without even suspicion that they may be doing something wrong, much less have proof of it. The idea is that in the Asian community, we’ve been fighting the stereotype that Asian-Americans are somehow automatically more suspicious than other people, that there’s something different or strange about us and we don’t trust Asian-Americans to do the right thing or be good Americans. And this law is going to fall into this sort of racial stereotype that Asian-Americans have been dealing with for over 100 years.

Now, the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Kolkhorst, has said, well, actually, they’ve tried to dial this in so that people who are trying to escape, for instance, countries where they’ve faced oppression, political discrimination and other forms of discrimination, will be able to obtain a home – that that’s not really an issue here anymore. You’re not satisfied with the changes? 

Even pared down to this point, the proposed law would still cover an entire class of people for no other reason than where they were born and where they’re from. And if we’re trying to protect people, it’s not just people who have become citizens. It’s not just people who have gotten their green card to become permanent residents, but it’s also visa holders. Visa holders are people that our nation has invited here lawfully to come study, to invest money, to create jobs. And we’re telling those people, “well, we invited you to come to create jobs, but we’re not going to let you do that.”

Well, as you as you know, these four countries listed are on the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment as posing a severe threat to national security. And all of this really sort of picked up steam when last summer there was a food manufacturer that made headlines for purchasing a large plot of land in Grand Forks, North Dakota – very close to Grand Forks Air Force Base. And of course, the military said that they could not build anything on that land because of concerns about national security. There have also been purchases in Texas and Texas, I believe, has more foreign-owned land than any other state. Do you discount the concerns about the purchases of property near military facilities? 

No, absolutely not. We have never doubted the need for dealing with national defense and national security. But the point that we’ve been trying to make from the very beginning is that people from a country do not represent that country no more than if Americans travel overseas. Do you represent American foreign policy? If you are concerned about the government, then pass laws against just those governments. And this is the problem of due process. If you want to restrict a person’s right, you have to show that they were deserving of having their rights restricted, that there is some need to restrict their rights.

So it sounds like your concern is primarily that it blocks the due process avenue by having wholesale restriction naming individuals from a certain country.

Its due process, meaning that you don’t have to show anything to take away someone’s rights and there’s no way for them to fix the restriction. There’s an equal protection under the law problem. The Fourteenth Amendment says everyone is equal under the law. The Texas Constitution – Article 1, subsection 3a – specifically says that Texas laws may not discriminate based on national origin.

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