AUSTIN, Texas — Among the controversies before the Texas Legislature this session is whether citizens and governments from certain countries can purchase land in Texas. Democrats are opposed and Republicans seem to be in support. 

What You Need To Know

  • As the legislative session is underway, a big controversy is if citizens and governments from certain countries can purchase land in Texas

  • Senate Bill 147, filed by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, aims to prevent citizens, companies and government entities from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from purchasing land

  • Democrats say the bill is discriminatory and offensive

At the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, held up a picture of his childhood home. He explained that his parents purchased the Houston house for $40,000 when they were waiting for their American citizenship. 

“While we were on the pathway to the American Dream,” he said. 

Rep. Wu is worried that other immigrant families won’t have this same opportunity to buy a home in Texas. That’s because state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R Brenham, filed Senate Bill 147. It aims to prevent citizens, companies and government entities from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from purchasing land here. Sen. Kolkhorst said she filed the bill to address national security issues with these countries.

But Democrats say the bill is discriminatory and offensive. Plus, Dallas-area Rep. Rafael Anchía said the federal government already reviews foreign investments to determine whether or not they impact national security. He called SB 147 “misguided.” 

Dr. Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor with Texas Christian University, said these conversations play into bigger conversations about immigration.

“Why do people from nations like China or Iran or North Korea or Russia want to come to the United States? It's not because they love those nations, or are trying to work against the interests of the United States. It's precisely the opposite of that in many cases. It's people that are coming to the United States because they don't approve of the policies in those other countries,” he said. “Any law that would prevent good-hearted people from purchasing property in the state of Texas, just because they happen to have a Chinese surname or Iranian surname or have been born on the soil of those nations, is something that is going to cause real hurt for people and is going to lead to charges of racism, ethnocentrism and a variety of other pejoratives that are going to heat up the debate without shedding much light.”

In a statement to Spectrum News 1 Texas, Sen. Kolkhorst clarified that the bill will not apply to United States citizens and lawful permanent residents. She said, "This has always been about common-sense safeguards against Russian, North Korean, Chinese and Iranian authoritarian regimes, not those fleeing the tyranny of those governments who seek freedom in Texas."

Gov. Greg Abbott already tweeted that he’d sign the bill as is, but Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said it’s written too broadly. He thinks there needs to be parameters to define what land, near what infrastructure the senator is concerned about.

“You need to be very focused on your goals, and how this legislation would accomplish those goals,” Jillson said. “It's hard to really see it passing both houses of the Texas Legislature and being signed into law unless it can be defended as narrow and focused on a real problem.” 

Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, filed a bill to prevent foreign governments from purchasing agricultural land. A similar bill passed last session to prevent foreign governments from owning critical infrastructure, like power and water facilities.

“By no means are we trying to prohibit someone who is coming here seeking a better life that wants to be an American or a Texan, from being able to do that. This is purely about securing our food source from potential bad actors,” Harris said. 

He added that he’s been in contact with Sen. Kolkhorst and said they’ll work together this session on the language of both bills. 

In Senate Bill 552, Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, says Texas needs to ban the “hostile foreign governments” of China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from access to agricultural land. 

“The Lone Star State must take every preventative measure we can to protect Texans, Americans, and those around the globe who depend on Texas agriculture. The Lone Star Agricultural Protection Act is a preventative measure that cannot be delayed,” Sen. Campbell said in a statement. 

Dr. Riddlesperger said it’d be hard to draw the line in the sand as to what land purchases are OK, and which ones aren't.

“We have many international corporations, many people in agriculture, who have investments all over the world. And many of them have huge investments from Americans, and also investments by people from foreign countries,” he said. “How could you draw a line that would successfully define how you implement a law that would preclude foreign investment, when there's really not even a very good way of measuring what constitutes foreign ownership?” 

Jillson added that foreign owners of agricultural land in Texas would probably just be running a business.

“There's a national security argument, which is that nations need to defend their critical resources, and food is obviously one of those critical resources,” he said. “But Americans own agricultural land around the world. If foreigners were to buy agricultural land in Texas, and grow normal Texas crops, they'd be looking for a market. They wouldn't be looking to ship the produce or the cattle or whatever it is back to their own country. They'd be looking to sell it in the vast American market or around the world.” 

Rep. Wu sees these agriculture-focused bills in the same light as SB 147: as anti-immigrant.

“I don't know of any government that's buying agricultural land, and why somehow your alfalfa field has become a national security issue. I think this is more about anti-immigrant sentiments. I think this is more about anti-Asian hate, and people who are looking to use that sort of internalized anger and hatred against a certain group to build more political power,” Rep. Wu said. 

He worries that these bills will increase racially-motivated attacks against Asian Americans, which surged during the pandemic.

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