Asian Americans are fighting back against what they see as discriminatory efforts to ban Chinese citizens from buying property in certain states.
While supporters of these bills cast their policies as targeting malign influence from the Chinese Communist Party, Asian Americans and their advocates worry the bills are only fueling xenophobia and unfairly blocking access to the American dream.
The battle is raging in Florida, where a new law targets Chinese citizens, and in other states, like Texas, where similar bills have been proposed.
“These are Chinese Americans who have come here to build a better life,” said Nabila Mansoor, executive director of Texas progressive group Rise AAPI, which has helped to organize against the Texas bill. “And what you’re telling them is that’s not good enough; we welcome you here with open arms, but we’re not going to give you the same rights and privileges that everyone else has.”
The state fights also come amid a broader fight over Chinese ownership of U.S. land, with former President Trump promising to push to ban Chinese purchases of farmland and other critical infrastructure if he retakes the White House, and various proposals on Capitol Hill to impose such restrictions.
Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), another leading GOP presidential contender, signed a law making it a felony for people “domiciled” in China to buy property in Florida unless they’re a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident. The Texas Senate passed a bill in April that would ban citizens of China and other foreign adversaries from buying property, with certain exceptions, though it died in the House when the Texas legislative session ended Monday.
The Alabama House passed a similar bill in May, which was scaled back to focus on hostile governments before passing the Senate. Many other states have passed or considered narrower bills that only focus on agricultural land or banning purchases by entities affiliated with the Chinese government. But the broader bills in states like Texas and Florida have drawn particularly fierce pushback.
Four Florida residents who are Chinese citizens, along with a Florida real estate firm that primarily serves clients of Chinese descent, have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the new law, which is set to take effect July 1.
The law allows people with a non-tourist visa or who have been granted asylum to purchase a single residential property of up to two acres, provided it’s not within 5 miles of a military installation. However, the lawsuit points out that there are numerous military sites in Florida, many of which are within 5 miles of major city centers like Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Pensacola, Panama City and Key West.
“Florida’s discriminatory property law is unfair, unjustified and unconstitutional,” said Ashley Gorski, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is helping to represent the plaintiffs, in a statement. “Everyone in the United States is entitled to equal protection under our laws, including citizens of other countries.”
In response to the new Florida law, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) Chairwoman Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and CAPAC Housing Task Force Chairman Al Green (D-Texas) introduced legislation in Congress to preempt state laws that restrict individuals from purchasing property based on country of citizenship.
“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 a news release.
Proponents of bills to restrict Chinese property purchases say they are necessary to protect national security.
“If you look at the Chinese Communist Party, they’ve been very active throughout the Western Hemisphere in gobbling up land and investing in different things,” DeSantis said at a news conference in January. “That is not in the best interests of Florida to have the Chinese Communist Party owning farmland, owning land close to military bases.”
In response to criticism, the Texas bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R) softened the bill, which would have prohibited any citizen of China, Russia, Iran or North Korea from buying property in Texas. She added exemptions for U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and people purchasing a home as their primary residence.
The new version “makes important clarifications, so the law targets agents of these adversarial regimes while not harming innocent Texans in pursuit of the American dream,” Kolkhorst said in a news release.
However, critics say such exceptions aren’t enough.
“What if you have an entrepreneurial immigrant who’s on their way to becoming a U.S. citizen?” Mansoor asked. “Can they buy property to start a business? No, they can’t. So that is actually hindering everything that people say is important about the American dream.”
State Rep. Gene Wu (D) a Texas state legislator who opposed SB 147, said it can take years for people to get a green card, and even longer to become a U.S. citizen.
“These are people who are lawful immigrants,” Wu said. “These are people who are here at the behest of the United States.”
“Sometimes, if they’re business visa holders, we have asked them to be here, we have begged and cajoled and pleaded with them to be here, to come to the U.S. to invest money, to do business, create jobs,” Wu added.
Wu added that Asian Americans not covered by the legislation could still be impacted if sellers aren’t sure whether they’re allowed to buy property.
“This is an open invitation for discrimination against Asian Americans,” he said.
Wu said SB 147 failing to pass — despite Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signaling his support early on — is evidence that the pushback against such bills is working.
“I think it would be safe to say that it didn’t get through because of the overwhelming backlash from the Asian community,” he said.
Haipei Shue, president of United Chinese Americans, said Abbott helped mobilize that pushback with a tweet in January saying he would sign the bill.
“Had Gov. Abbott not tweeted in his Twitter account, many of us wouldn’t know [about SB 147], or at least not as quickly,” he said.
Shue said such bills unfairly equate Chinese immigrants with the Chinese government.
“You say you hate CCP, but you love Chinese people, then you turn around and you make these laws, at least on the state levels, you’re targeting a whole class of Chinese Americans or Chinese nationals who have nothing to do with the Chinese government,” he said.
For some Asian Americans, these bills harken back to America’s history of anti-Asian laws, like the Chinese Exclusion Act and alien land laws, which denied Asian immigrants the ability to purchase land in certain states.
“We perceive this sort of wave of attacks as another iteration of the same type of prejudice against Asian Americans that we’ve experienced in the past,” Wu said.
“The only difference is now that our community is no longer willing to just quietly tolerate this type of active discrimination against our community.”