Gov. Pillen, Sen. DeKay look to prevent foreign adversaries from owning Nebraska real estate

DeKay commits to a future amendment to modernize the 1889 law while the ACLU of Nebraska blasts it as a “relic of Nebraska’s old, racist past”

By: - February 6, 2024 8:30 pm

Cattle graze in a field outside of North English, Iowa, on Sept. 13, 2017. (Courtesy of USDA, Preston Keres)

LINCOLN — Gov. Jim Pillen and a state senator are looking to modernize a law they say is designed to prevent foreign adversaries and sanctioned nationals from buying land in Nebraska.

State Sen. Barry DeKay of Niobrara, right, speaks with State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings. Jan. 5, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

Legislative Bill 1301, introduced by State Sen. Barry DeKay of Niobrara at Pillen’s request, would make a host of changes to a law that has remained untouched for more than 80 years, adding an enforcement mechanism for the first time

“What we’re doing is not something that is radically different,” DeKay told the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, as there is already a legal framework.

A draft amendment reviewed by the Nebraska Examiner would expand restricted land statewide, rather than specifically within 10 miles of military installations. It would also specify that a “nonresident alien” must disclose agricultural land purchases in line with federal law.

The Nebraska Department of Agriculture would determine whether a violation of the “Foreign-owned Real Estate National Security Act” occurred and could forward the matter to the Attorney General’s Office. If successful, the land or property would be subject to divestment, or reselling.

Individuals who report a potential violation could get a financial reward if divestment occurs.

Restricted entities as defined in the bill are individuals or groups that are either:

  • Listed on any sanctions lists maintained by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
  • Determined by the U.S. secretary of commerce to have “engaged in a long-term pattern or serious instances of conduct significantly adverse to the national security of the United States.”

Six foreign adversaries

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo has classified six countries or persons as foreign adversaries, according to the most recent data:

  1. The People’s Republic of China, including the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
  2. The Republic of Cuba.
  3. The Islamic Republic of Iran.
  4. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
  5. The Russian Federation.
  6. Venezuelan politician Nicolás Maduro (and the Maduro Regime).

Source: U.S. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations

DeKay said the flexibility in these federal definitions would keep the restrictions up to date as international conditions evolve. 

For example, DeKay said, Iran used to be a U.S. ally. Now, the United States is trading Tomahawk missiles with Houthis in Yemen after Iran attacked commercial ships in the Red Sea.

‘We feed the world’

Pillen testified that he’s completed about 10 town hall meetings around the state over the past few weeks with general points of feedback, including the importance of DeKay’s bill.

Nebraska has become one of the most sustainable breadbaskets in the world, the governor said, and it must protect its land from undue influence, particularly by foreign adversaries.

“As we often say, we feed the world, we save the planet,” Pillen said. “Food security is national security, and it’s imperative that we as Nebraskans take stock of who owns our land.”

Jon Cannon, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, and John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, each testified in support for LB 1301’s goal and said enforcement in the proper place is critical.

Hansen said the bill would be a “positive step in the right direction” but would not solve all the issues his union fields, such as concerns over domestic land purchases. The Flatwater Free Press last fall detailed some of the top buyers of Nebraska farmland, including the Mormon Church, Ted Turner and Bill Gates.

“It’s very difficult to fence those kinds of issues, and this bill doesn’t deal with those, nor should it,” Hansen testified. 

Still a work in progress

The Nebraska Land Title Association was one of two groups to testify in opposition. 

Sam Cooper, president-elect of the title association, outlined a host of technical concerns, ranging from the bill not explicitly prohibiting a restricting entity from purchasing land or property (they’re just defined), whether divestment would apply to previous owners and the process of divestment. With technical changes, Cooper said, the association’s position would change from opposing the bill to a neutral stance. 

Cooper said his group also had some reservations with the financial incentive for reporting violations.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen. Dec. 27, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sens. Rick Holdcroft of Bellevue and Steve Halloran of Hastings, chair of the Agriculture Committee, noted that Cooper brought up multiple concerns. Halloran noted it was “quite a list.”

“It might have been simpler if you would have just told us the few things that you liked,” Halloran said to a room of laughs. “I’m not trying to be smart, but we hope that you will work with Senator DeKay on this.”

Cooper responded that he will, “as hard and as quick” as he needs to, because he understands it’s an important bill.

Representatives from various organizations, including the Nebraska Agri-Business Association, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Corn Growers Association and Nebraska Soybean Association, testified in a neutral capacity. Similar to Cooper, they said they will work with DeKay and the governor’s staff and could change their position from neutral to being in support.

‘Relic (of) old, racist past’

Dylan Severino of the ACLU of Nebraska blasted for giving new life to an 1889 law that he said had been used to target Chinese immigrants who were buying land in Nebraska. 

“Providing a financial incentive to report anyone who looks like an ‘alien’ is deeply problematic and will only lead to further discrimination and harassment of Nebraskans based on national origin, alienage and race,” Severino testified.

Severino said the law and the proposed changes through LB 1301 are already unconstitutional and told lawmakers the ACLU upholds immigrants’ rights in any capacity. While not committing to legal action if LB 1301 passes, he said the ACLU would step in if needed to protect immigrants’ rights.

State Sen. Jana Hughes of Seward asked whether Severino thinks the current law is unconstitutional, too.

Steve Halloran speaks at an Agriculture Committee hearing
State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, chair of the Agriculture Committee. Feb. 21, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Severino said he’s confident it is, but Halloran said only a court ruling would determine that.

“This is a relic of Nebraska’s old, racist past — it will not be part of Nebraska’s future,” Severino told Hughes. “Nebraska does not have a racist future, this bill will not be part of it, so please do not take a step down that path.”

DeKay said his bill has “absolutely nothing” to do with a particular group of people and said he has no concerns about unconstitutionality.

“We’re not going after anybody but bad actors that have ties to foreign governments that are adversaries to us,” DeKay said. 

The Agriculture Committee did not take immediate action on DeKay’s bill.

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to correct the position of the Nebraska Land Title Association.


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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach rejoins the Nebraska Examiner after studying abroad in Antigua, Guatemala, following a yearlong Examiner internship. His coverage focus areas have included politics and government, health and well-being and higher education.