Senate Bill 132 made it past Crossover Day. Immigrant advocates say it’s part of a dangerous trend to invoke national security concerns to stigmatize immigrants.
March 31, 2023 update: Senate Bill 132 did not go to the House floor for a vote in time for Sine Die. It will be up for reconsideration next year for the second half of the 2023-2024 legislative session.
A bill that restricts certain immigrants from countries the U.S. considers “foreign adversaries” from buying either agricultural land or land near a military installation in Georgia passed the state Senate last week, and is now under consideration by the House.
A similar bill, HB 452, died in the House last week, and immigrant advocates are hopeful that the Senate bill will do the same before the legislative session ends March 29. They warn it is part of a dangerous trend nationally to restrict land ownership on the basis of national origin – in the name of national security. At least ten other states and the U.S. Congress have introduced similar bills since 2021.
If passed, SB 132 would limit both people holding valid visas and foreign companies from acquiring farmland or land within 25 miles of military installations in Georgia if they are from countries designated as a “foreign adversary” by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce or as “countries of particular concern” by the U.S. State Department.
That covers a broad range of countries, including China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela (foreign adversaries), along with Burma, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan (countries of particular concern).
Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), the bill’s author, said he was motivated by concern about national security–in particular, China. “This bill just prohibits the Chinese Communist government from buying our Georgia farmland … I want to make sure that we aren’t having Communist China running our farms,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle.
“I think we need to be paying attention to this and making sure we’re protecting our farmland,” Beach added. The bill is co-sponsored by 14 other Republican senators, and it passed the Senate on a 35-20 vote, with one abstention. Two Democrats joined the Republican majority to send the bill to the House.
SB 132 was introduced in the Veterans, Military, and Homeland Security committee. The related House committee is Agriculture & Consumer Affairs.
Read the latest version of the bill.
Chinese investors and companies owned just under 384,000 acres of U.S. farmland as of 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That makes up just 0.9% of foreign-owned U.S. agricultural land, far less than for European landowners (investors from the Netherlands own 4.4 million acres) and Canadian ones own 9 million acres. By contrast, Bill Gates owns almost 270,000 acres.
“Attacking and stigmatizing immigrants”
Critics say that the bill is dangerously overbroad. Rather than targeting specific governments, they say, it places unfair and sweeping restrictions on buying property for ordinary people, while promoting anti-immigrant stigma.
For instance, land within 25 miles of any military airport, base, or installation covers most of metro Atlanta.
What’s more, visa-holders from the targeted countries who leave Georgia for over two months in a year–or the United States for over six months–are subject to the land ban.
“It limits how long you can leave Georgia and how long you can leave the country,” said Jennifer Lee, the policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta, which sent an action alert against the bill to community members. “If you own or inherit property, and you fall into these categories, you have to get rid of your property–or essentially change your [residency] status.”
Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, says SB 132 discriminates on the basis of national origin, which violates the Fair Housing Act and can make many immigrant groups vulnerable to targeting.
“The United States has a long history of attacking and stigmatizing immigrants. Discrimination against certain groups has often been justified by invoking national security concerns,” Shahshahani said. “This bill and others like it echo this shameful history … [It] will further brand and target immigrants and make them susceptible to hate crimes and abuse.”
Atlanta realtor Tim Hur is president of the Asian Real Estate Association of America, which is advocating against SB 132 and similar bills in other states. Hur says he doesn’t think it’s realtors’ responsibility to ask questions about immigration status during real estate transactions.
“As real estate agents, we are not the immigration police. We’re not in the business of asking people their immigration statuses,” he said. “It’s a fair housing violation left and right, and we don’t want to be a part of that.”
Courts have struck down these types of land-ownership restrictions before, Lee added, but “there’s a new wave of them, with anti-China rhetoric and feelings on the rise. That’s why we’re concerned about it.”
Hur and his colleagues are keeping a close watch on SB 132 and similar bills nationally. “If it passes in one state, it sets a precedent for other states,” he warned.
Even if SB 132 dies in this session, Hur predicts it will return next year in some form. “Even if this bill does not pass, it’s going to come full force next year in a different way,” he said.
Active federal military installations across Georgia