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Slew of new landownership bills are reminiscent of anti-Asian Alien Land Laws

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Washington is often concerned with tackling the threat of China's powerful competitive economy. But in the past year, those concerns seem to have caught on at the state level. You see, more than 30 states have now introduced several dozens of bills restricting the Chinese government, Chinese businesses, even Chinese citizens from buying land in the U.S. For some, this evokes memories of the so-called alien land laws back in the 1900s that kept Asian Americans from owning property. Edgar Chen has been following the slew of legislation closely. He's a special policy adviser for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. Welcome.

EDGAR CHEN: Thanks. It's great to be on.

CHANG: It's great to have you. You know, I was struck, Edgar, by just how many states have either proposed or altogether enacted bills having to do with restricting Chinese businesses and Chinese citizens from buying land just in the last year. I mean, we're talking about at least 34 states, according to one advocacy group. Why do you think all of this is happening in this moment?

CHEN: You know, fear of so-called malign influence by the Chinese Communist Party over American agriculture or fear that China will use land for spying purposes has often been cited as the basis for introduction of these bills. But to be clear, several of these bills, as introduced, also placed restrictions on the ability of ordinary Chinese citizens to purchase residential real estate, like condos.

CHANG: And can you tell us more about some of the specifics of the bills that jump out to you, that you find deeply troubling?

CHEN: Yeah. So, for example, in Florida, a law recently enacted there would prevent persons from certain countries that are deemed adversaries to the U.S. from purchasing agricultural land, land near military bases or critical infrastructure and - so most habitable areas. And that would ban persons from countries like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela or Cuba from doing so. But that Florida law has an entire separate section dedicated to restricting those from China. And that law even has higher penalties for those violating the Chinese section than for other sections. So there are felony provisions for violating the Chinese section of the Florida law and misdemeanors for the other sections.

CHANG: Wow. To be fair, China does pose legitimate national security concerns to the U.S. at the moment. How effective do you think these bills at the state level really are at addressing those national security concerns?

CHEN: So I think that, you know, what we've seen, for instance, with the Chinese spy balloon in February of this year doesn't help matters. That provided a tangible illustration of the ongoing geopolitical threat posed by China. But again, these laws that we've seen introduced do nothing to address that particular threat head on. I don't see how banning someone from buying a condo in the downtown area will address that particular threat.

CHANG: Right. And specifically, what is the rationale to target individuals who are legally here in the U.S. from buying land here?

CHEN: So the problem is there is a false moral equivalency that equates ordinary Chinese citizens, even those with no ties to the Chinese Communist Party, as essentially being agents of those regimes. So these laws assume that if you immigrate from China, your loyalty is to China. And that's extraordinarily harmful to the broader Asian American community in this country.

CHANG: Well, the U.S. Justice Department has signaled that it does not think Florida's law is constitutional. And just to be clear, this law, this legal challenge to the law, is still going through the courts. But there's clearly a concern that the Florida law and others like it could represent a slippery slope towards more discriminatory laws aimed at Chinese citizens, Chinese people. As a lawyer, I guess, how much faith do you have in our court system to get laws like this struck down?

CHEN: Ailsa, there is no slippery slope. This country has already seen this movie before. We've experienced the discriminatory effects of these laws. The court that recently upheld the Florida law cited to a widely discredited 1923 precedent which contains language about those who are eligible for citizenship and therefore entitled to purchase property. And that 1923 Supreme Court precedent says that Natives of European countries are eligible. Japanese, Chinese and Malays are not. That is the type of case law that is being cited to. And as an Asian American and as a lawyer, I'm stunned that the court would continue to rely on a case that contains so much discriminatory reasoning.

CHANG: As legal precedent.

CHEN: As legal precedent. And, you know, those alien land laws helped set the groundwork for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. So for the Asian American community, we have seen this. This slippery slope has already come and, we thought, gone.

CHANG: And now it's replaying. That was Edgar Chen, special policy adviser for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. Thank you very much for joining us today.

CHEN: Thank you, Ailsa, for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.