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Xenophobia or security precaution? Georgia lawmakers divided over limiting foreign land ownership

ATLANTA (AP) — Legislation that would ban some citizens of China from owning farmland in Georgia is advancing at the state Capitol despite criticism that it promotes xenophobia and could face legal hurdles.

Supporters say the ban is needed to protect the country's food supply from a nation hostile to U.S. interests. Numerous states have enacted similar measures, which gained traction after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over the U.S. last year.

A Georgia House of Representatives committee passed a bill Tuesday restricting the sale of agricultural land and land near military installations to an “agent” of China or several other countries. The state Senate passed a similar measure last month.

The Senate bill, SB 420, would ban foreign nationals from China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Russia who are not legal U.S. residents from owning farmland in Georgia or any land in the state that is within 25 miles (40 kilometers) of a military installation unless they have spent at least 10 months of the previous year living in Georgia.

The ban extends to businesses in those countries as well, but does not apply to residential property.

State Sen. Nabilah Islam Parkes, a Democrat from Duluth, slammed the bill during debate on the Senate floor on Feb. 29, comparing it to historical attempts by lawmakers in the U.S. to limit immigration from China and land ownership by Asian Americans.

“This bill provides no real national security benefit, but does threaten the safety and security of Asian Americans, immigrants from Asia and other immigrants,” she said. “Questioning people’s loyalty, trustworthiness and dangerousness based on their country of origin is offensive and xenophobic.”

Sen. Bill Cowsert, a Republican from Athens, Georgia, said the bill targets countries that have been designated as enemies by U.S. officials and excludes residential properties to avoid possibly running afoul of federal law.

“This does not discriminate against people based on their national origin,” he said, noting that the ban doesn't apply to U.S. citizens or legal residents from those countries. ”It is not picking on anybody based on what their heritage is at all.”

States including Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas passed similar bans last year largely with support from Republicans, though some Democrats have also raised concerns about Chinese ownership of farmland in the U.S. The laws followed the balloon incident and some highly publicized cases of Chinese-connected entities purchasing land near military bases in North Dakota and Texas.

Florida's ban prompted a lawsuit by a group of Chinese citizens living and working in the state. A federal appeals court ruled last month that the law could not be enforced against two of the plaintiffs, saying they were likely to succeed on their argument that Florida's restriction is preempted by federal law.

In Georgia on Tuesday, advocate Megan Gordon cited the litigation around Florida's law to urge members of the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs committee not to push forward with similar legislation.

“It doesn’t really make sense for us to wade into pending litigation in this way,” said Gordon, policy manager with the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, a Republican from Alpharetta, told the House panel the legislation was needed to “keep our enemies away from our farmland.”

“They want to control our technology," he said of China. "They want to control our agriculture.”

The committee passed a narrower land ownership ban that now goes on to the full House for consideration.

Thong (T-AH-m) Phan, with the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said the Georgia Senate bill wrongly treats citizens of China and the other targeted countries as their agents.

“It targets individuals and families more so than it targets foreign governments,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “How is it effective in achieving national security?”