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Chinese Americans fight for their place in Texas as lawmakers push restrictions on foreign land ownership, social media platforms

By Alexa Ura, The Texas Tribune

Chinese Americans fight for their place in Texas as lawmakers push restrictions on foreign land ownership, social media platforms” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A mid-January Twitter post by Gov. Greg Abbott alerted Chinese Americans across Texas that their rights might be trampled as state lawmakers rushed to burnish their geopolitical credentials.

On Jan. 15, the Republican governor told his 1 million followers he was ready to sign into law a proposed bill that would ban “citizens, governments & entities” of China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from purchasing land in the state, in effect blocking some immigrants from becoming homeowners.

The bill restricting land ownership was followed by kindred proposals to ban international college students from those same countries and to cut off Texans’ access to TikTok and another social media platform that’s become crucial for the Chinese diaspora living in the state to communicate with family in China.

The legislation came amid escalating tensions between the United States and the four targeted countries, but also tracked the increasing political scrutiny by Republicans, and some Democrats, of China’s reach in the country.

As the Legislature’s work has ramped up, the political headwinds have drafted Chinese Americans into defending their foothold in a state where many have lived for decades, and where Asian Americans have reliably made up the fastest-growing segment of population for years. They’ve grown fearful of a legislative culture that could feed challenges to the rights of Asian Texans, as well as Texans from the other targeted countries.

“You can target foreign governments, you can target [the] foreign Chinese Communist Party, but you have to separate that from the individuals that are already in this country and protected by the Constitution,” said Hugh Li, president of the Austin Chinese-American Network and a naturalized citizen of 18 years. “This is our land too. This is our home too. So for the Texas Legislature to want to pass these kinds of bills targeting us and strip away our rights, it’s just not right.”

Republican lawmakers say their efforts are rooted in national security concerns. In February, state Sen. Lois Kolhorst of Brenham described the provisions of Senate Bill 147, the land ownership bill, as “commonsense safeguards” against authoritarian regimes. The senator said she was spurred to file it after it ranked among the top concerns she heard throughout her district, though she later agreed to modify the legislation after it faced loud outcry from Chinese Americans.

More recently, state Rep. Jared Patterson of Frisco said that House Bill 2206’s proposed ban on social media platforms “developed or provided” by entities in the four counties is meant to protect Texans personal information from being “collected by bad foreign actors.” The social media bill echoes federal efforts to scrutinize popular platforms like TikTok and WeChat over security concerns related to China’s access to Americans’ data.

“This does not seek to harm individuals from these countries, but seeks to ensure that information cannot be collected from Texas and distributed to potentially dangerous countries,” Patterson told a House committee considering his bill.

The proposals have left it to Chinese Americans to delineate for lawmakers that their lives in Texas exist far apart from geopolitical considerations.

At a House hearing in March, a contingent of Chinese Americans waited more than six hours to testify against the legislation that would ban social media platforms, detailing how they rely on WeChat to stay in touch with family. They held up screenshots of video chats between grandparents and grandchildren. One Texan grew emotional as they described how the bill would sever the “bridge for emotional connection” for many Chinese Americans.

WeChat is used by 1.3 billion people every month. In China, the platform is reportedly heavily censored and serves as an instrument for mass government surveillance. In households across the state, however, Chinese Americans primarily rely on the messaging and calling tools available through WeChat to connect with family members and friends back in China, where the use of the app is ubiquitous and where other social media or messaging platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp are banned.

In 58 pages of testimony submitted in writing to the committee, Texans described WeChat as an “indispensable lifeline connecting us to our families, friends, and culture.”

“Imagine moving to a foreign country where one social media app is the only platform that your parents and family can use to video chat with you and your children,” Weihua Zhao of Pearland wrote to the committee. “If such social media is banned by the local government, how would you feel, and how would your parents and family feel? Please put yourself in our shoes so you can understand how sad we are about this bill.”

Ironically, Li said, the opposition was organized over WeChat where groups have emerged among Texans concerned about the legislation being considered.

Some described how the use of WeChat in the U.S. has grown into an important tool for businesses connecting with supplies overseas. It was crucial for Chinese restaurants fighting to stay afloat at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s used by day cares to send notifications to parents and by community groups to distribute news, notifications and even weather warnings that otherwise would not be translated from English. The app even serves as a platform for Bible studies among Chinese-speaking churches.

Patterson’s office did not respond to a request for comment regarding the concerns raised during the hearing.

Others raised claims of unconstitutionality and questioned why Chinese Americans would be targeted in what they described as an affront to their First Amendment and equal protection rights. Federal courts blocked the Trump administration’s 2020 efforts to block TikTok and WeChat in the United States through executive orders, though the effort has more recently gained bipartisan support in Congress, where national security concerns have reverberated among lawmakers from both parties.

Members of Congress recently grilled the TikTok’s chief executive, questioning China’s influence over the video app, while the Biden administration has been hardening its position against the platform. Last year, Abbott banned the social media platform on government-issued cellphones and computers, which later led to restrictions on the use of the app on university campuses’ networks.

The hearing on the social media bill came months into a growing outcry among Asian Americans spurred by Abbott’s endorsement of the land ownership bill, which originally included broad language that would have prohibited many immigrants from buying homes. That included green-card holders stuck in the sometimes drawn-out process of applying for citizenship and even naturalized U.S. citizens who retained dual citizenship in one of the four targeted countries. There are roughly 155,000 people living in Texas originally from China — the largest count of Texans among the four targeted nationalities. Census data shows slightly more than half are naturalized citizens, but tens of thousands are not citizens.

Though they still make up a small share of the state’s population, Chinese immigrants are part of the state’s fast-growing Asian population. In the last census, Texas gained three times the number of Asian residents as white residents. And Chinese is the fourth most spoken language in Texas homes behind English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Abbott’s tweet was circulated and recirculated over social media, raising alarm among Chinese Americans across the state, including some who had not previously paid much attention to the Legislature’s work in Austin. Some of them turned out at large rallies in the state’s largest cities. Some showed up to the state Capitol in droves in early March to protest the consideration of legislation that would’ve kept many of them from becoming homeowners.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

At the Senate committee hearing — at which more than 100 people packed the Senate chamber, mostly to criticize the bill — Kolkhorst pushed back on accusations of racism, but acknowledged that her initial proposal was not “clear enough.” She indicated the bill language would be changed to make clear that the land ownership ban would not apply to U.S. citizens, including dual citizens, or lawful permanent residents.

(That substitute language has not been formally adopted since the hearing, when the legislation was left pending.)

Even with those changes, the bill would have kept Christina, who asked to be identified by only her first name out of safety concerns, and her husband from becoming homeowners. The Dallas-area residents first came to the United States on student visas and purchased their first home in 2000 while on H-1B visas, which allow U.S. employers to employ foreign nationals in what the government describes as “specialty occupations.”

That modest suburban house is where they raised their two daughters and marked the point at which they made Texas home — even before they became legal permanent residents and eventually naturalized citizens.

“To be honest with you, up until SB 147, I was just really minding my own business,” said Christina, who testified at the Senate’s hearing in March. “I vote during elections, but I just haven’t been really active in the political arena. But I came down to Austin to attend that hearing because I think what they’re proposing fundamentally is really against what America is.”

The proposals under consideration this year are not necessarily breaking new ground. They are shaped in the same mold as a 2021 law written in response to a Chinese billionaire’s purchase of roughly 140,000 acres near the Texas-Mexico border for a wind farm. That law, passed unanimously, banned Texas businesses and government officials from making infrastructure deals with interests from the same four countries.

Various states in the midwest have restrictions on foreign ownership of farmland, according to the Council of State Governments. A 2021 land report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found Canadian investors own the largest share of foreign-held land, most of that being agricultural land, in both the United States and in Texas. Chinese investors, meanwhile, own less than 1% of the nation’s foreign-held acres. Just 3% of the more than 167.5 million acres of land in Texas is foreign-held agricultural land.

But in targeting homeownership, many of those who have voiced their opposition to the bills worry the Legislature will further perpetuate the anti-Asian sentiment and targeted violence that’s been on the rise in recent years. At the state Capitol and in interviews, Chinese Americans have raised the prospect of having their citizenship questioned in ways prospective homebuyers of other national origins or races would not face.

More broadly, they see the legislative session as a threat to their bonds to the state based solely on their national origin. By failing to make distinctions between foreign governments and Texans from those countries, Asian Texans have said, the bills continue a long trend of the government making immigrants feel like “others.”

“It’s just a reminder that to a lot of people, you’ll never be American enough,” said Nabila Mansoor, the executive director of Rise AAPI, a progressive grassroots organization. “It doesn’t matter if you were born here or came here at a really young age and you’’re following all the legal requirements to get citizenship. You will always be considered as someone that is looked at with suspicion.”

“It’s just a reminder that the place of immigrants in this country and this state is so tenuous, and it can all be taken away so easily,” she said.

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