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Florida’s restrictions on property purchases by Chinese citizens hark back to a dark history of xenophobia

In 1913, three decades after Congress approved the Chinese Exclusion Act, California prohibited Chinese and other Asian immigrants from owning land. More than a dozen other states, including Florida, enacted similar “alien land laws” during the next few decades.

S.B. 264, which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed into law this month, bears more than a passing resemblance to those xenophobic edicts, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argues in a federal lawsuit it filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. “This law is unconstitutional,” the ACLU’s complaint says. “It violates the equal protection and due process guarantees under the U.S. Constitution; it intrudes on the federal government’s power to superintend foreign affairs, foreign investment, and national security; and it recalls the wrongful animus of similar state laws from decades past—laws that were eventually struck down by courts or repealed by legislatures.”

DeSantis portrays S.B. 264, which sharply restricts land ownership by Chinese citizens, as part of the state’s efforts to contain the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But the plaintiffs represented by the ACLU, who live in Florida legally but do not have green cards, have nothing to do with the CCP. They have been working or studying in the United States for years and are dismayed by the arbitrary, nationality-based rules that suddenly stand in the way of their plans to buy residential property.

Among other things, S.B. 264 restricts real estate purchases by Chinese citizens who are neither U.S. citizens nor legal permanent residents. Effective July 1, it prohibits them from buying agricultural land or any property within 10 miles of a “military installation” or “critical infrastructure facility.” Those terms are “so broadly defined,” the ACLU notes, that they “bar affected individuals from being able to purchase property across much of the state.” The restrictions, it says, “will have the net effect of creating ‘Chinese exclusion zones’ that will cover immense portions of Florida, including many of the state’s most densely populated and developed areas.”

Those provisions also apply to other people “domiciled in a foreign country of
concern”—a category that includes Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Syria, and North Korea as well as China. If they hold non-tourist visas, those people are allowed to buy one residential property in Florida, provided it is less than two acres and is not within five miles of a military installation. The ACLU notes that “there are more than a dozen military installations in Florida, many of them within five miles of city centers like Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Pensacola, Panama City, and Key West.”

Previously owned properties must be registered with the state, and owners who fail to comply are subject to civil penalties of $1,000 a day. Any property purchased in violation of the new rules is subject to civil forfeiture, and buyers generally are guilty of a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a maximum $500 fine. Anyone who knowingly sells land to a prohibited buyer is subject to the same penalties. But the penalties are much more severe when the buyer is a Chinese citizen: Buyers are guilty of a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, while sellers are committing a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

In a May 8 press release, DeSantis said the law targets the CCP. “Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threatthe Chinese Communist Party,” he declared. “I’m proud to sign this legislation to stop the purchase of our farmland and land near our military bases and critical infrastructure. …We are following through on our commitment to crack down on Communist China.” The plaintiffs challenging S.B. 264 are understandably puzzled by that rationale.

Yifan Shen, who works as a registered dietician and holds an H-1B visa for “specialty occupations,” has lived in the United States for seven years, the last four in Florida. “She is not a member of the Chinese government or of the Chinese Communist Party,” the ACLU notes. In April, she signed a contract to purchase a home in Orlando as her primary residence. That property “appears to be located within ten miles of a critical infrastructure facility and within five miles of a military installation.” Because the expected closing date is after July 1, the complaint says, Florida’s law “will prevent Ms. Shen from acquiring her new home,” so she “stands to lose all or part of her $25,000 deposit.”

Zhiming Xu, who applied for asylum after he was “persecuted by the Chinese government and had to flee to the United States,” is in a similar situation. He has lived in the United States for four years and works as a manager of short-term rental properties. This year he signed a contract to buy a home near Orlando that “appears to be located within ten miles of a critical infrastructure facility.” He “stands to lose all or part of his $31,250 deposit” if S.B. 264 takes effect.

Another plaintiff, Xinxi Wang, holds an F-1 visa for international students and is pursuing a doctorate in earth sciences at a Florida university. She already owns a home in Miami but would be forced to register it under S.B. 264, a requirement the ACLU describes as “burdensome, discriminatory, and stigmatizing.”

Yongxin Liu, an assistant professor of data science who holds an H-1B visa and has lived in Florida for four years, likewise would have to register his home near Daytona Beach. S.B. 264 would nix Liu’s plan to buy a vacation home for him and his parents near Pelican Bay.

The ACLU also represents Multi-Choice Realty, a real estate brokerage that, like the other plaintiffs, has no connection to the CCP. The company, which specializes in serving Chinese-speaking clients, worries that Florida’s new restrictions will disrupt its business by disqualifying many of its potential customers. The complaint adds that S.B. 264 is apt to encourage broader discrimination against “people of Chinese descent even for transactions that are permitted, as sellers will seek to broadly avoid Chinese buyers given the criminal penalties imposed for selling property in violation of the new law.”

Even leaving aside the fact that these plaintiffs are not CCP agents, the Chinese menace perceived by DeSantis seems chimerical. In 2022, the complaint notes, “Chinese buyers were involved in only 0.1 percent of all real estate purchases in Florida—they purchased only one out of every 1,000 residential properties sold in the state. Chinese buyers did not even crack the top-ten list of foreign buyers by country in 2022, with Chinese buyers constituting no more than two percent of all foreign buyers.”

DeSantis has “presented no evidence that Chinese buyers of property in Florida are agents of the Chinese Communist Party or have caused harm to national security,” the ACLU says. “Indeed, the State of Florida has failed to identify any nexus between real estate ownership by Chinese citizens in general and purported harm to national security.”

DeSantis wants us to believe that preventing a dietician, a property manager, or a professor from buying property in Florida, based purely on their national origin and non-immigrant status, somehow strikes a blow against “the Chinese Communist Party” and “crack[s] down on Communist China.” But it is hard to see why innocent people should suffer for the crimes of an oppressive regime they left behind.

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