A rally against state Senate Bill 147,which would ban Chinese citizens from buying real estate in Texas, outside City Hall in Houston on January 23.

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New efforts to bar Chinese citizens and others from owning property in Texas and other states echo the treatment of Asian people in the US more than 100 years ago, when Congress barred them from obtaining citizenship and multiple state laws restricted land ownership.

  • In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin is expected to sign legislation to bar citizens of countries the State Department has designated as “foreign adversaries” from owning agricultural land. Companies with deep ties to those countries would also be affected. Those countries currently include China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. There are similar proposals in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota. Foreign owners control a fraction of US farmland, according to the Congressional Research Service.
  • In Texas, a much broader proposal names those countries and bans citizens of them from owning any land whatsoever. The ban would presumably extend to legal immigrants living in the US. That bill is still working its way through the legislature but has the support of Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Texas proposal in particular specifically recalls a despicable chapter in US history, when so-called Alien Land Laws were passed in numerous states between the 1880s and 1920s to specifically bar Asian people from owning land. The California Alien Land Law was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1952 for violating the 14th Amendment.

In 1923, the Hollywood Association started a campaign to expel the Japanese from their community. Hollywood resident, Mrs. B. G. Miller, points to an anti-Japanese sign on her house.

Chinese people were explicitly barred from immigration to the US for generations – from the 1880s, when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, until that law’s repeal during World War II.

A ban on people ‘ineligible for citizenship’ owning property

So few Chinese people were allowed to immigrate for another generation after that until 1965 – 105 per year – that it amounted to a de facto ban.

As a result, the anti-Asian property laws mostly affected Japanese Americans.

While the laws did not specifically single out Asians, they were applied to people “ineligible for citizenship.”

That made the laws specifically apply to Asians since Congress, at the time, allowed citizenship only for immigrants coming from Europe or Africa.

The most notorious example of Alien Land Laws was in California, which passed multiple versions of these laws over the years, and where Asian immigrants were concentrated.

One celebrated and yearslong court battle pitted a Japanese immigrant, Jukichi Harada, who found a way around the law by having his children own the house where his family lived in Riverside, California. They were ultimately able to keep the house when a judge ruled in their favor in 1918, but they were later moved to internment camps during World War II because of their Japanese ancestry.

Today, the Harada House is a National Historic Landmark and a museum.

Reinvoking the ‘Yellow Peril’

I called Madeline Hsu, a history professor and expert in Asian American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, to ask if these