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Alabama ban on Chinese citizens buying property draws opposition; bill changed

Lily Moore of Montgomery, a college instructor and licensed realtor, speaks to an Alabama Senate committee about a bill that would have banned Chinese citizens from buying property in Alabama. (Mike Cason/[email protected]/TNS)

An Alabama Senate committee on Wednesday rewrote a bill that would have banned Chinese citizens from buying property in Alabama, including those who live and work legally in the state, a proposal that drew opposition after passing the House of Representatives last week.

Opponents of the original bill packed a committee room at the State House today and said the idea was discriminatory, racist, and ignored the contributions of Chinese Americans who contribute to Alabama’s economy, educational institutions, medical care, and in other ways that enrich their communities and make the state a better place.

The Alabama Senate Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee drew an overflow crowd Wednesday for a public hearing on a bill that in its original form banned citizens of China from buying property in Alabama. (Mike Cason/[email protected]/TNS)

The bill, HB379, is called the Alabama Property Protection Act. The version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives last week would have made it illegal for Chinese citizens and businesses and the Chinese government to buy property in the state. It passed with support of most of the Republican majority and opposition from most of the Democrats in the House. The sponsor is Rep. Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, the House majority leader. Twenty-five Republican representatives are co-sponsors.

Today, the Senate Agriculture, Forestry, and Conservation Committee adopted a substitute version that changed the substance of the bill, narrowing the focus to farm property and land near military bases and critical infrastructure like power plants, water and sewer treatment plants, gas processing centers, seaports, and airports.

The substitute bill would not ban Chinese citizens who live in Alabama from buying property. It would ban the governments of China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia from buying property in Alabama that is used for agricultural or forestry or that is within 10 miles of a military base or critical infrastructure. People and businesses in those four nations, defined as “foreign countries of concern,” would also be under the ban.

The bill says the ban would also apply to “a person, country, or government identified on any sanctions list of the United State Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.”

“Our land is very valuable to the American people, to our economy, to our way of life,” said Sen. David Sessions, a Republican from Mobile County and chair of the committee. “Being a farmer myself, I hold the land very dear and near. And I think we need to protect our natural assets of this country.”

People who packed the committee room for a public hearing on the original bill still had a chance to be heard.

Michael Guo-Brennan, an associate professor of political science at Troy University, read from a statement he had prepared that said the ban on property ownership would have been a step back toward the era of Jim Crow laws targeting Black citizens.

“Anyone who appears to possibly be Chinese will have to prove they are not,” Guo-Brennan wrote. “They will have to literally ‘show their papers’ to prove they are ‘good’ Asians. How long will it be until you require Chinese to wear yellow stars on their clothing much like Nazi Germany required of Jewish people in the 1930s?”

“Protecting the homeland, including national security interests and critical infrastructure is commendable,” Guo-Brennan wrote. “However, this legislation fails to accomplish that. Instead, it leads to blatant racism and discrimination that not only violates federal law, it turns back the clock in Alabama to a time when what you looked like determined your basic human rights.”

Lily Moore of Montgomery was at the hearing to speak against the original bill. Moore was born in China but has grown deep roots in Alabama. Moore became a U.S. citizen when she married an American 25 years ago. She teaches math at Auburn University at Montgomery, teaches Sunday school, and is a licensed realtor.

“It is much better than the original bill,” Moore said of the substitute. “Even the senators themselves agreed that first one shouldn’t even pass.” But Moore said she is still concerned about the original bill making it through the House and the discriminatory nature of it.

Moore said Alabama has been a great place to live but noticed changes in the way people reacted to her during the COVID-19 pandemic, an illness some politicians and others called the “China virus” or the “Kung flu.”

“This is such a friendly state,” Moore said. “Even to walk on the street and people said hello, and people are interested in my nationality and think something positively. And hold my umbrella for me and my baby when I walk out from the store when it’s raining.

“But nowadays, people start giving the dirty look. And the language started to just really confront us right after COVID and during the COVID until now, it’s just getting worse. I feel like, all of a sudden, I was kind of reminded, ‘You are not from here. This is not your house. You need to go back to China.’ And it’s very disturbing.”

Moore said the contentious relationship between the United States and China does not justify legislation that is punitive to Chinese citizens who are working as legal residents in America, including those who are working to attain American citizenship, a process that she said takes eight to 10 years.

Moore is vice president of the Central Alabama Association of Chinese, founded in 1982. According to its website, the organization’s purpose is to share Chinese culture, improve understanding among ethnic groups, and contribute to the prosperity and development of Chinese American culture.

Moore said the association contributes to the community with activities such as raising money for the Montgomery Area Council on Aging’s meals program for senior citizens.

“We are the contributors to work so hard to build up our Alabama state, to make this place a better state,” Moore said. “We are involved with lots of charities.”

Yeqing Bao, a professor and chair of Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is a naturalized citizen who has been in the country for more than 20 years. Bao said young faculty members in his department who are not U.S. citizens were distressed by the legislation and what it meant for their futures in Alabama.

“We cannot buy a house, so why do I even work here?” Bao said they were asking. “They were all immediately feeling the fear and the panic. Do I need to move?”

Bao said he appreciated the committee listening to the concerns of the Chinese American community and others in the Asian American community and changing the bill today. But he said the fact that the bill in its original form passed the House was troubling and called the whole process “heartbreaking.”

“Together, we can make the state a lot better,” Bao said. “We need to come together to value the diversity, value the different cultures, the perspectives.”

Sessions acknowledged the concerns of many of those at the public hearing who said the original bill discriminated against Chinese Americans

“The original language was not what we would have liked to have had it,” Sessions said. “The substitute, I think when you read it, will hopefully satisfy a lot of your concerns.”


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