The Austin Chronicle

Bill of the Week: Texans Take to the Capitol to Battle Discriminatory Property Bills

Who gets a piece of Texas?

By Benton Graham, March 17, 2023, News

Texas Iranian-American Advocacy Day was supposed to be a day for Iranian Texans to gather from across the state. It was supposed to be an opportunity for Max Jameson to convey which Iran-related federal bills he did and did not support, for Michelle Khodayari Lewis to trek from San Antonio to the state's Capitol, and for Anahita Ahmadi to share their horrifying experience of imprisonment by the Iranian regime. While the group did get those messages across during their Feb. 22 event, the Texas Legislature managed to complicate the focus of the event through a pair of bills filed by Republican lawmakers that aim to put restrictions on buying property for folks with ties to China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.

Senate Bill 147, filed by state Sen. Lois Kolk­horst, R-Brenham, initially included vague language aimed at barring individuals from those countries from purchasing property. SB 711, filed by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, takes it a step further. That bill, which several Iranian Americans described as "scary," would require buyers from countries deemed national security threats to receive written approval from the seller to complete the purchase. "Senate Bill 711 would allow the seller to proclaim, exhibit, and instill a patriotism, through sacrifice for the greater good through the knowledge of who's trying to acquire it," Perry said.

The Iranian American community wasn't the only group to oppose the bill. Chinese Americans held a large protest in Houston's Chinatown in February and flooded a Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing on March 2. "We are proud to call Texas our home ever since we moved here. As a foreigner in the United States, I have always felt safe ... However, in January, when Gov­ernor Abbott endorsed SB 147, that shattered all the peace of mind," one Chinese American speaker said. As Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, attempted to cut him off for reaching his allotted time, the speaker pointed out that previous speakers who gave testimony in favor of the bill had been given more leeway to go over on time. A wave of loud applause poured in from the gallery – an indication of the strength of opposition to the bills.

Prior to the March 2 hearing, advocates had managed to win a few concessions from Kolkhorst on SB 147. She agreed to sharpen the language so that the restrictions did not apply to lawful permanent residents, which she noted includes dual citizens. "We wanted to make sure that if these bills get passed that they have amended verbiage, and I do believe that Sen. Kolkhorst was very generous in her time and understanding in putting that amended verbiage in there. I think that made us feel heard by her," said Khodayari Lewis, who met with several lawmakers during the Texas Iranian-American Advocacy Day.

Armin Salek, one of the event organizers, said there are mixed feelings in the community about the bills and the concessions won. "We, as a community of organizers, agree that we want to prevent the Islamic regime and its beneficiaries from owning property in Texas, but we want to do it in a way that doesn't punish ordinary Iranian Americans who have already suffered at the hands of the Islamic regime," he said, adding that Perry's bill appears to be a clear violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Banafsheh Madaninejad, who also helped organize the event and is a political science professor at Austin Community College, said she sees the bills as ineffective in keeping regime operatives out of Texas and that they "really [mess] with Iranian-Americans sense of belonging," as she had to explain to her 13-year-old son why she needed to testify at the Capitol. The advocates, known as the Texan Iranian-Ameri­can Advocacy Group, are also continuing their calls for politicians to sponsor Iranians on death row for their participation in protests. They hope the sponsorship can act as a form of protection for those at the mercy of a brutal regime.

In addition to state legislation, they've their sights set on national bills, with hopes that Congress will pass the MAHSA Act, which would sanction Iran's supreme leader, president, and other leaders. Thus far, that bill has been largely backed by House Republicans. House Resolution 100, another bill around the Iranian protests, has received more bipartisan support. However, TIAAG opposes it because they worry it boosts the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, a group one TIAAG member described as "basically a cult" that has faced accusations of sexual abuse and other wrongdoing.

Members of TIAAG are seeking support from U.S. Reps. Greg Casar, Lloyd Doggett, and other Texas Democrats. Dog­gett told the Chronicle that he's supporting the MAHSA Act and is holding off on supporting H.R. 100 given concerns around its language about MEK. "I want to do what little we can to keep the issue out there, and to let the people who are suffering in Iranian prisons and are subject to the death penalty know that we have not forgotten," he said, adding that he would consider sponsoring a protester on death row in Iran. A statement from Rep. Casar's office noted that he "will continue to work with his fellow progressive Democrats on how to best promote human rights and advocate for democracy in Iran and across the world." Members of TIAAG plan to visit Washington, D.C., later in the month and to host a Texas Iranian-American Advocacy Day every two years to promote a culture of advocacy.

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