For activist Helen Shih, hearing about Senate Bill 147 — a proposal to bar citizens of China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from buying property in Texas — was stressful in a week filled with preparations for Lunar New Year events. The week also ended in grief after a mass shooting at a Lunar New Year celebration in Monterey Park, Calif.
More:Asian Americans say Monterey Park killings revive fears, trauma of rising anti-Asian hate around US
Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who filed SB 147, is proposing to bar legal permanent U.S. residents, visa holders and asylum seekers from those four countries from buying land, though she has indicated she’ll remove legal permanent residents from the prohibition. Filed in November, the bill gained political steam after Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted on Jan. 15 his commitment to sign the bill, which proponents say is needed for national security.
SB 147 piggybacks on a 2021 state law that bars those four nations from owning or controlling critical infrastructure projects in Texas.
Shih said SB 147 discriminates against the very people trying to flee oppression in those countries and find safety in America. Being able to buy a condominium or a small home helps people build a life here, the Houston-area activist said. She helped Austin activists organize a rally at the Capitol on Sunday after co-organizing protests in the Houston area.
The Capitol rally came after other protests were held statewide, and there was a concurrent one in Dallas. An outpouring of Chinese American community members gathered at the Capitol from across the state with signs that said, “Stop Chinese hate,” “Say no to the exclusion bill,” and “Say no to discriminatory bill SB 147, SB 552,” the latter a related bill filed by Sens. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, to ban the purchase of agricultural land by citizens of those same countries.
More:Proposed law would bar China, Russia, Iran and N. Korea from owning property in Texas
Community organizations including United Chinese Americans, the Austin Chinese Engineers Society and the Asian Americans Leadership Council organized the rally. State Reps. Gene Wu, D-Houston, and Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, and Austin City Council Member Zohaib “Zo” Qadri spoke at the demonstration.
Austin resident Lina Sun said she is protesting SB 147 to protect her family. She said a bill targeting Chinese Americans could give rise to more anti-Asian sentiment and negatively affect her child.
“It can’t be: Prohibit all the individuals, or good people, to purchase property for their family,” Sun said. “It’s unconstitutional.”
She said this bill would affect her mother’s dream to buy property and establish a life in the U.S. Her mother, in her 60s and currently living alone in China, wants to live with Sun in the U.S. since Sun’s father has died.
Austin resident Sheng Peng said the rally was not just about protesting SB 147, but about raising alarm against these kinds of proposals, which might further provoke hatred and violence against Asians.
Peng said that even if you are an American citizen, you are not safe from discrimination, stoked by SB 147, as long as you look Chinese.
“And it’s not good for the country,” Peng said. “It’s already a divided country. It will deepen the division further. So that’s what this is about. It’s not about a political game. It’s about human rights. It’s about the whole society.”
Houston resident Xiaoyu Wu voiced similar sentiments and even gave up attending his son’s Lunar New Year performance at the University of Texas to attend the rally. Tony Xu, also from Houston, said he is an American citizen but participated in the rally to protect future generations. Round Rock-based immigration attorney Chuck Guo called the bill unlawful discrimination based on national origin and said other state legislatures may follow suit if Texas passes this bill.
Protesters also told the American-Statesman they expect Chinese Americans — U.S. citizen or not — to face housing discrimination if the bill passes.
The Houston Chronicle reported Wednesday of Kolkhorst’s intention to change her bill to allow legal permanent residents to buy land.
In a Jan. 20 statement, Kolkhorst said: “In the committee substitute, the bill will make crystal clear that the prohibitions do not apply to United States citizens and lawful permanent residents. This has always been about common-sense safeguards against Russian, North Korean, Chinese and Iranian authoritarian regimes, not those fleeing the tyranny of those governments who seek freedom in Texas.”
Changing the bill is ‘a slippery slope’
Wu, the Democratic state representative from Houston, is advocating for SB 147, in its entirety, to be rejected.
“Even if we cut it down, even if we remove some provisions, it will still say ‘all Texans are equal, but some Texans are less equal.’ And that’s a really dangerous thing to say,” Wu said.
Shih, the Houston-area activist, said any changes to the bill would still cause some groups to be excluded, even if legal permanent residents were removed from the land purchasing ban.
“Still, all other visa holders, other legal immigrants, will have trouble too,” Shih said. “This is not just my concern, but the whole community feels that way. Again, it’s like a slippery slope. Where are you going to draw the line? And whoever’s being pushed out of that line, they will be the one who’s going to suffer from this.”
Wu said national security concerns were addressed in SB 2116, for which he voted in 2021. He said the only new proposal SB 147 adds is the individual person component, but he added that there are other ways for Texas to review and address national security risks without “a blanket law” targeting an entire community.
“Why use a sledgehammer approach? Why use a sledgehammer when a scalpel could do?” Wu said.