HomeAsian Americans"The situation will get worse": Alien land laws in 33 states

“The situation will get worse”: Alien land laws in 33 states

By Julia Tong

When Texas Governor Greg Abbott suddenly tweeted that he would sign a bill restricting Chinese, North Korean, Iranian, and Russian citizens in Texas, the local Asian American community was alarmed. They were soon shocked to learn about SB 147, a modern iteration of the alien land laws used to discriminate against Asian citizens.

SB 147, however, was only the first of numerous alien land laws: In the next few months, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and Louisiana joined in introducing those laws. The APA Justice Task Force (APA Justice) has found that 33 states have introduced alien land bills in recent legislative sessions.

Local communities— including many Asian Americans— are resisting what they describe as discriminatory legislation. APA Justice founder Jeremy Wu says many of these organizations have collaborated across state and racial lines to oppose these bills.

“This is really a grassroots movement. You’re talking about many people doing many roles,” Wu says. “It’s really a big tent with this effort, and it’s not limited to Asians.”

“You put any Asian country on any bill, you put a target on their back”

Today’s alien land laws are often traced back to the 1910s when many states began enacting state laws prohibiting foreign citizens, or ‘aliens,’ from purchasing land. But according to Wu, they are interwoven with the long legacy of anti-Asian racism in the United States.

In an article for the Daily Beast, attorney Shan Wu (no relationship to Jeremy Wu) traced alien land laws back to Oregon and California’s constitutions in the 1860s-70s. Many of these laws were not repealed until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s-70s. But others persisted: Florida’s law was not repealed until 2021.

“When we talk about the Chinese exclusion laws, we typically think of only one law, that is the Chinese Exclusion Act,” said Wu. “But there are many other related.”

Today, APA Justice views alien land laws as simply one element in a broader landscape of anti-Asian racism that the organization has been combatting for years. APA Justice was founded in 2015 after Chinese American professors were falsely accused of being spies.  The land laws today, he says, are simply a continuation of this ongoing discrimination.

“We consider racial profiling to be a form of anti-Asian hate. Therefore, [these] activities in many ways parallel and maybe predates the current term of anti-Asian hate in that regard,” said Wu.

Since learning about SB147, APA Justice has tracked alien land laws across the country. The organization maintains a map of restrictive land laws nationwide on its website. At the time of writing, according to the map, 20 states are either still considering, or passed, those laws.

This map tracks the more than 30 states where Alien Land Law bills have been introduced
By APA Justice Red: Passed. Turquoise: Failed. Pink: introduced. Dark Blue: No known bill

Wu says there are similarities between the alien land laws introduced. The land affected by the laws broadly falls under three categories: Those affecting farmlands, critical infrastructure, and real estate for businesses and individuals. Many of those laws are introduced in Republican states in the South, though some Midwest and Western states are also affected.

Many legislators claim that the law specifically targets foreign nationals, not US residents. But Wu disagrees. The laws, he says, instead discriminate against numerous immigrants and permanent residents of the US.

“Many of the state lawmakers themselves thought that there will be people who live in North Korea, people who live in China,” said Wu. “But actually many of them are here [and are] permanent residents. So that’s part of the impact.”

Nominally speaking, many of the alien land laws target Chinese people. Yet this does not mean other Asian groups are safe from discrimination, stresses Steven Pei, a professor at the University of Houston and organizer with APA Justice.

“You put any Asian country on any bill, you put a target on their back,” he says.

“These bills will come back, and other bills will show up as well”

Fighting discriminatory land laws, however, can be difficult. The large volume of alien land laws in the country is often introduced— and passed— at rapid speeds.

On top of that, many people do not learn about the laws until it is too late. Wu points out that many people don’t pay attention to the legislation being passed by their state governments. And even if they did follow the legislation, he says, a layperson would find the legal language difficult to understand.

“Some of the groups don’t even realize what the potential impact of these laws are. It’s gradually sinking in,” he says. “A bill could be introduced and then, within a very short time, there will be a hearing that most people don’t know about. And then the next thing is that it got passed and got signed into law.”

Still, despite these challenges, Asian Americans across the nation are mobilizing against discriminatory land laws. Pei was deeply involved in the fight against SB 147. The key to resisting those bills, he says, is community readiness and grassroots organizing.

As an example, Pei points to the introduction of SB147 in Texas. In response to a tweet by Governor Abbott declaring he would sign the legislation, APA Justice and other community organizations quickly mobilized against the law. A march in Houston in February drew over a thousand people and blocked traffic on major boulevards. In March, 129 people testified against the bill at a Texas Senate State Affairs Committee hearing— compared to only 10 in favor.

“We at the grassroots were organized,” says Pei. “Austin, Houston, San Antonio… We’re all connected… We could respond pretty quickly.”

This experience, Pei recalls, prepared organizations like APA Justice to support others in states which had also introduced alien land bills— such as when community organizations in Florida reached out about SB 264, the state’s newly introduced Alien Land Law.

 As the list of states which introduced alien land bills grew, Pei has only become busier: Now, he’s working with organizations in as many as 10 different states, such as Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana.  

Each state is unique, Pei stresses. But this nationwide collaboration is a valuable form of support. Organizers today now have a wealth of experience to draw from, and advocacy against alien land bills today is increasingly more collaborative.

In March 2023, for instance, the Texas Multicultural Advocacy Coalition (TMAC) was formed, including numerous groups affected by discriminatory land laws: Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Iranian, Muslim, Black, and Latino community organizations— all groups affected by the discriminatory land laws.

And the efforts of organizers in Texas have spread nationwide as well. Weekly statewide town halls held by Texas representatives Gene Wu soon turned into national gatherings on alien land bills across the country. Organizers— many of whom are immigrants directly affected by alien land legislation— have also collaborated across state lines on rallies and retreats.

“Really, this may become a new Civil Rights movement,” said Pei. “The new immigrants are waking up. They’re really taking charge.”

Today, action against alien land bills is happening at the federal level: Representatives Judy Chu and Al Green have introduced a bill preempting those on the basis of the 14th Amendment.

But Wu and Pei say that the outcomes of state-specific fights against restrictive land laws are still uncertain. In Texas, SB 147 has been joined by another bill that restricts agricultural land ownership by foreign entities, SB 552. And though Florida’s SB 264 was supposed to go into effect on July 1st, it continues to be challenged by both the federal government and local Chinese citizens.

Per Pei, however, the fight will only get more difficult going forward. More and more alien land bills are being introduced across the country. And many states lack Asian legislators or strong community organizations to push back against laws that are introduced.

“We don’t want a loss,” he says. “These bills will come back, and other bills will show up as well.”

“In the next couple of years, for Asian Americans, the situation will only get worse.”

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Please consider making a donation and following us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and TikTok. Information about interning, joining the staff or volunteering is here. We are supported by a grant from the California Library Commission and its Stop the Hate program. You can find more resources here.

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