State Legislatures Are Cracking Down on Foreign Land Ownership

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Bills in 24 states propose limits on who can own what.

This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Chinese surveillance balloon seen over Montana in January riled up state legislatures and got them asking the question: How much control should foreign countries have over US land and natural resources?

Senate Republicans in Texas answered, “None whatsoever,” advancing a bill that would prohibit Chinese, Russian, and Iranian citizens from owning not just land, but even a home, under the pretext of national security. “This bill may prove even more significant in light of a Chinese spy balloon that traversed across the continental United States,” said Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkorst, the bill’s author.

When bills single out individuals by their nationality, they draw startling parallels to the xenophobic Alien Land laws of the 20th century. They also raise concerns about their own legality and ethics.

Texas is not the only state looking to curtail foreign land ownership in the US, however. Five states across the West—and 24 across the country—have proposed laws that aim to restrict various forms of land, property and natural resource ownership by foreign citizens and companies.

The bills generally focus on “foreign adversaries” like China, even though the data shows that Canadians and Europeans possess far more US property than any other foreigners do. Of the 40 million acres of agricultural land purchased by foreign interests, less than 1 percent is owned by China. Only 73 acres were linked to Russia, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The majority of foreign-owned ag land—62 percent—is controlled by Canadian and European business interests.

Rather than focusing specifically on another nation, I think we should focus on absentee ownership in general,” said professor Loka Ashwood, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky. An absentee owner is a person who lives outside of the county or country where the land in question is located. It’s the primary way that land becomes consolidated by corporate agribusiness, said Ashwood. Such businesses—including the Seaboard Corporation, a global food, energy and transportation company, and Border Valley Trading, one of the largest exporters of compressed hay products in the West—aren’t always foreign, Ashwood added.

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