August 3, 2023

Americans must unite to reject 21st Century ‘alien land laws’

The following piece was published in The Hill  and was written by Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council and John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill into law that drew from some of the worst impulses and harmful moments in American history, and was a direct echo of discriminatory “alien land laws” that targeted individuals based on their ancestral country.

Under the law, foreign nationals who are domiciled in a “foreign country of concern” — including Iran, China, Russia, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria — will be restricted from purchasing land in many parts of the state. The governor’s website trumpets this new civil rights violation, declaring “Florida has once again taken the lead in protecting American interests from foreign threats and has provided a blueprint for other states to do the same.”

Now, taking a page from DeSantis, Congress is considering inserting an amendment into the National Defense Authorization Act that would ban visa holders from targeted countries from making certain agricultural purchases. These restrictions would apply to all 50 states, and be based solely on national heritage. This is wrong and legislators must reject it.

Very similar bills became law in six other states, including Arkansas and Tennessee, and have been debated in many more. In response to these bills at the state and federal level, civil rights groups such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC have created a database to track and categorize them based on their legislative progress and scope to educate the public and organize opposition. A strong grassroots push in Texas narrowly blocked a similarly reckless bill from reaching Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. But other bills introduced on the federal level have even received bipartisan support. Unless something happens to reverse the tide, extensive national heritage restrictions on property purchases could be the norm — or even the law — across the entire country in a few short years.

As advocates who represent and are a part of these targeted communities, we are not naïve to the real threats these “foreign adversaries” pose to the U.S. Some members of our community have fled the conditions in their country of origin intentionally, choosing to come to the U.S. because of the promise of freedom and the ideal of a country united, not by race or national origin, but by democratic principles.

They’ve chosen America for the promise of opportunity, but some lawmakers want to greet them with harsh, unwelcoming laws based in bigotry. The very people who are seeking America’s best are the ones who will be most harmed by these bills.

They are people who have chosen to come to the U.S. through various immigration pathways but who do not yet have citizenship or permanent status. They may also be individuals with dual citizenship, not because of any indecision or disloyalty, but because of the laws of a country they no longer call home. It is these U.S. citizens who stand to be discriminated against by home sellers eager to avoid any complications given the restrictions of these proposed laws.

Instead of protecting the U.S., these bills hurt Americans and the American economy. For example, in Texas, realtors and those in the real estate profession raised concerns about the burden that a proposed law would have on those selling property in Texas. Real estate agents are not experts on citizenship or immigration law, and these laws would either chill the sale of property, or worse, lead to discriminatory selection of potential buyers based on perceived citizenship. It is difficult enough for people of color to avoid discrimination in the housing market without adding immigration status discrimination to the situation.

Such senseless bills make the all-too-common mistake of conflating immigrants and their families with the country they came from in the name of supposed national security. This kind of discrimination and racism is unfortunately nothing new to the United States. Our history is littered with instances where false or exaggerated cries of “national security” were used as excuses for racist, harmful and ultimately pointless laws — from the targeting of Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Americans after 9/11 to the World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans established in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even the language of these new proposed bills draw, almost directly, from laws that targeted Asian immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.

When we look back at these failed attempts to “protect national security” by implementing racist and discriminatory laws, they are among some of the most shameful moments in our shared American history. Immigration, civil and human rights advocates, in Texas and across the country, have already mobilized against these discriminatory bills, and we have no doubt that most Americans will see the proposed bills for what they are: racist, political theater that does nothing to make all Americans safer.

These bills do not represent an idle threat to American democracy, they represent a looming one that strikes at the core rights of many of its citizens and those who came to this country in pursuit of the American dream. As we saw in such instances as the infamous Korematsu v. United States decision that upheld the incarceration of Japanese Americans or the Supreme Court’s ultimate acceptance of the Muslim ban, we can’t rely on the courts alone to save us. Instead, we must mobilize to resoundingly defeat these bills before they are passed. We cannot rest as a community until it is done.

Fortunately, Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Al Green (D-Texas) — two strong champions of civil rights — have come together with more than a dozen of their colleagues and proposed legislation that would preempt these discriminatory bills. This means that if the Chu-Green bill passes, discriminatory state-level bills would be superseded by federal protections against discrimination, and the laws would cease to impact immigrant communities. This is the kind of leadership we need from Congress, instead of peddling in the same xenophobic restrictions that erode our nation’s civil rights protections.

Safeguarding fundamental rights is something all Americans should be able to support. America must do better than our history. Our rights are on the line.

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