TALLAHASSEE — A group of Chinese citizens living and working in Florida sued the state Monday over a new law that bans Chinese nationals from purchasing property in large swaths of the state.
The law applies to properties within 10 miles of military installations and other “critical infrastructure” facilities including the sewage treatment plant on Virginia Key.
It also affects citizens of Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. But Chinese citizens and those selling property to them face the harshest penalties. The prohibition also applies to agricultural land.
The American Civil Liberties Union says the law will have a substantial chilling effect on sales to Chinese and Asian people who can legally buy property. The suit says the law unfairly equates Chinese people with the actions of their government and there is no evidence of national security risk from Chinese citizens buying Florida property.
The law “will codify and expand housing discrimination against people of Asian descent in violation of the Constitution and the Fair Housing Act,” the ACLU said in a news release announcing the suit. “It will also cast an undue burden of suspicion on anyone seeking to buy property whose name sounds remotely Asian, Russian, Iranian, Cuban, Venezuelan, or Syrian.”
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, lists four Chinese plaintiffs who have non-immigrant visas. It says they are in the U.S. legally, but might not be considered “domiciled” under the new Florida law. The suit also alleges violations of the 14th Amendment right to equal protection of the laws and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution which the ACLU contend preempts Florida from passing laws in areas reserved to the federal government, such as foreign investment regulation.
U.S.-China ties are strained amid growing tensions over security and trade. In nearly a dozen statehouses and Congress, a decades-old worry about foreign land ownership has spiked since a Chinese spy balloon traversed the skies from Alaska to South Carolina last month.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential campaign this week, signed the bill May 8. His office didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment. It was supported by both Republicans serving Key Biscayne, Rep. Vicki Lopez and Sen. Alexis Calatayud.
The law is set to take affect July 1. It will be a felony for Chinese people to buy property in restricted areas or for any person or real estate company to knowingly sell to restricted people. For the other targeted nations, the penalty is a misdemeanor for buyers and sellers.
It applies to military bases as well as infrastructure like airports and seaports, water and wastewater treatment plants, natural gas and oil processing facilities, power plants, spaceports, and telecommunications central switching offices.
The ACLU says the law “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.”
“This impact is exactly what laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the California Alien Land Law of 1913 did more than a hundred years ago,” the lawsuit says.
Those on the restricted list that already own property near critical infrastructure must register with the state or face fines of up to $1,000 a day. They’re also prohibited from acquiring additional property. The law has provisions to allow the state to seize property from violators.
The number of states restricting foreign ownership of agricultural land has risen by 50% this year.
Heading into 2023, 14 states had laws restricting foreign ownership or investments in private agricultural land. So far this year, restrictive laws also have been enacted in Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia.
Foreign land ownership has become “a political flashpoint,” said Micah Brown, a staff attorney for the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas.