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Senate in Texas scales back property measure

By MAY ZHOU in Houston | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-04-28 09:53

The Texas Senate has passed a watered-down version of SB 147 that restricts the sale of farmland after strong protests from the Asian community and civil rights groups against the measure's targeting people by countries of origin.

The Senate voted 18-12 on Wednesday to send the bill to the House.

A major change to the bill dropped the names of four countries — China, Iran, Russia and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea — and replaced them with "designated country" as defined by the "Director of National Security" as a country that poses a risk to US national security. Nevertheless, those four countries, and possibly more, are most likely on the list right now.

After amendments, the bill now would prohibit government, companies and citizens of the designated countries from purchasing agricultural, mineral, quarry and timberland, but would allow the leasing of those real properties.

Permanent residents without American citizenship would be exempt from that limitation.

Furthermore, no individuals will be prohibited from acquiring residential property and commercial property. The bill would apply limitations only on companies whose majority shares are controlled by individuals from one or more "designated country".

That means SB 147 now would prohibit government entities, citizens without a green card, and companies with majority control owned by the individuals of the designated countries from buying agricultural, mineral, quarry and timberland only.

Activists from the Chinese community, while satisfied with the changes were nonetheless disappointed that SB 147 passed at all. The slogan that "less discrimination is still discrimination" quickly became a catchphrase soon after the vote was taken.

Texas state Representative Gene Wu issued a statement that he was frustrated by the "Senate's passage of SB 147 in its current form".

"The main concern, that we have stated from the very beginning, is the bill's attack on 'individuals' without any suspicion or proof that the individual is a government actor or an agent of a government," Wu said.

"Even with the amendments offered, this legislation still takes away the rights of an entire class of people without due process and solely on the basis of their national origin. Under this legislation, the only evidence needed to deny a person their basic civil rights is where they are from. Less discrimination is still discrimination."

Wu said he will continue to work in the Texas House where SB 147 is now heading to eliminate what he called the unnecessarily discriminatory aspects of the bill.

Prior to the vote on Wednesday, Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat, spoke against SB 147. He addressed the bill's author Lois Kolkhorst: "Senator Kolkhorst, the concern from the Asian community which you represent in Fort Bend, the concern is that if you come after the Chinese in this session, who's next? We can't continue to single out a group in our communities and single them out in the society."

Whitmire said that from what he understands, "this plays very well with a certain (political) base" but it's "terrible and unneeded legislation" that addresses a nonexistent problem and "harms some of our best residents and constituents".

Senator Nathan Johnson, also a Democrat, said that "despite the good motivations and legitimate concerns the bill addresses, I am not convinced it will increase the security of the state at all." Instead, he believes that the bill is going to "send a hostile message" and increase "tensions and suspicions, resentment, violence among Texans here today".

Kolkhorst defended her bill by emphasizing the changes made to it and pointed toward similar bills restricting foreign land purchases in other states. She accused the federal government of failing at national security and said the state legislators have to step in.

Despite that the bill also targets individuals from certain countries, Kolkhorst said, "SB 147 is just about maintaining a strong Texas, it is not in any way picking out someone of certain origin."

Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance (CALDA), a nonprofit civil rights organization, issued statement a few days ago that the organization has been monitoring such bills across the country and it will "file lawsuits as soon as any of these bills are passed, and we will not stop fighting until all of these laws are overturned".

The organization said that those bills "are no different from the so-called 'alien land laws' that many states passed more than 100 years ago to ban Asian people from owning land".

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