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Texas considers a bill banning people from 4 countries from buying real estate

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

There's a bill in the Texas state Senate that would ban the sale of real estate to Chinese, Iranian, North Korean and Russian citizens - all real estate. If it passes, experts think it would be the first law of its kind since World War II with a blanket ban based on nationality. NPR's John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The story starts here on the Devils River in remote Southwestern Texas. Its headwaters are on Alice Ball Strunk's ranch.

ALICE BALL STRUNK: My great-grandfather purchased it in 1905. And so we just love it here.

RUWITCH: The land is rocky and beautiful, but there's not much grass.

BALL STRUNK: It's hard to make a living these days in the ranching business.

RUWITCH: So many landowners now rely on ecotourism. A few years ago, though, word got out that an investor wanted to build a huge wind farm nearby, raising concerns about the views and the environment. Then something else came to light. Randy Nunns, another ranch owner involved in efforts to preserve the area's wild aesthetic, pulls out a map.

RANDY NUNNS: So everything in red is owned by Chinese, and they put these names on these ranches.

RUWITCH: A Chinese billionaire owned the land, around 130,000 acres of it. Locals soon discovered that he'd been in the Chinese military, and that set off alarm bells, especially because the land was not far from Laughlin Air Force Base.

NUNNS: Which is the No. 1 pilot training base in the country.

RUWITCH: Politicians grabbed hold. And in June 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ratified the Lone Star Infrastructure Protection Act.

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GREG ABBOTT: I am signing a law that protects our critical infrastructure from hostile nations.

RUWITCH: By hostile nations, he meant China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. But that wasn't the end of it. Last fall, Republican state Senator Lois Kolkhorst quietly filed Senate Bill 147. And in January, Abbott tweeted that he'd sign it.

GENE WU: It would mean that every permanent resident - so everyone with a green card, everyone who's here on a visa, either invited to do business or invited here to study - would not be able to purchase property, would not be able to own property.

RUWITCH: That's state Representative Gene Wu, a Democrat from Houston. Experts say the bill would end up mostly impacting Chinese people, since there are far fewer citizens of Iran, North Korea and Russia in Texas.

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YUE ZHANG: Feel free to ask me any questions.

RUWITCH: Thirty-three-year-old Yue Zhang has been worrying about this new bill lately. He came to the U.S. from China in 2010 to get his Ph.D. at Harvard, and now he's an assistant professor on a tenure track at Texas A&M University.

ZHANG: For anyone who's an immigrant to U.S., they can always go back to their home country, right? But given that my life is here, I have all my friends here and my career is here, so the chance of going to China at this point I have not considered.

RUWITCH: Some of his colleagues, though, have said they would leave Texas if the bill passes. And that highlights a problem for policymakers, many of whom are keen to burnish tough-on-China credentials but risk scaring off foreign talent and investment. Lois Kolkhorst, the state senator who introduced the bill, did eventually promise to make adjustments. Here she is on Texas' KWHI radio.

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LOIS KOLKHORST: We'll make it very clear that those that are here legally, those that have become U.S. citizens or those that are in the pipeline to become U.S. citizens, are not affected by the bill.

RUWITCH: But that's not enough, says Gene Wu. He worries it'll still inflame anti-Asian hate, which has been on the rise in the U.S.

WU: Even if you trim it down, it will still say everyone is equal, but some people are less equal than others. That's a really dangerous public statement to make and a dangerous public policy to make.

RUWITCH: And Micah Brown with the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas says Texas is not alone. There's a wave of new legislation building. In 2021 and 2022, he says eight states proposed new laws.

MICAH BROWN: And now going into 2023, we are up to 21 states.

LIU MING: Yeah, I grew up in Houston, probably like a mile from where we are right now.

RUWITCH: Thirty-nine-year-old Liu Ming moved to the Lone Star State from China when he was a kid, but he still holds a Chinese passport so he can easily go back and visit his relatives. The proposed law has prompted some soul searching.

MING: I'm really divided because if I leave and I have the ability to fight this law, I feel I'm giving up. Like, why should I leave? What did I do wrong to deserve to be chased out of my home?

RUWITCH: Texans, he says, are proud of their state, and so is he, which is why he's staying and fighting this legislation.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.