Four Chinese citizens living in Florida and a real estate brokerage that operates in the state have joined together in a lawsuit challenging a new law that places severe restrictions on the ability of some non-U.S. citizens to purchase property there.
The case, Shen v. Simpson, charges that Florida law SB 264, which was signed by Governor Ron DeSantis this month and goes into effect on July 1, violates the plaintiffs' rights to equal protection and due process under the U.S. Constitution.
The bill places restrictions on the purchase of property by individuals who are citizens of 'countries of concern,' including Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Russia and North Korea, but the rules are most severe for Chinese citizens.
Under the law, it will become illegal for Chinese citizens who are not lawful permanent residents of the U.S. to purchase any real estate in Florida. Chinese citizens who currently own property in the state will be required to register those properties with the state. Violation of the law is punishable by fines, criminal charges and imprisonment.
The suit names several defendants, including Wilton Simpson, Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture, whose agency would be in charge of enforcing the law. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services had not yet responded to VOA's request for comment.
Asian Americans concerned
Opponents of the bill said that it will increase racial animus in the state and pointed out that the legislation echoes many anti-Chinese and anti-Asian laws that were passed across the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and which were later ruled unconstitutional.
'There's a huge amount of concern within the Asian American community in Florida and other communities that are affected by this law about how it stigmatizes people of Asian descent,' Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, told VOA. 'It will make it harder for anyone whose name sounds like they may be [from] one of the countries to buy property within the state.'
'Xenophobic policies and rhetoric toward China stoke racial bias,' Bethany Li, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said in a statement. 'We have repeatedly seen how policies in the name of national security have harmed Asian Americans - from immigration restrictions to the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans in camps and post-9/11 surveillance. Failing to call out the discriminatory impacts means our community will continue to experience racism, violence, and the erosion of rights.'
'All Asian Americans will feel the stigma and the chilling effect created by this Florida law, just like the discriminatory laws did to our ancestors more than a hundred years ago,' attorney Clay Zhu, a co-founder of the Chinese-American Legal Defense Alliance said in a statement. 'We shall not go back.'
Support from both parties
The bill was introduced earlier this year after DeSantis, who is expected to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday, expressed a desire to prevent Chinese companies and nationals from buying property in the state. The bill had both Republican and Democratic sponsors in the state legislature. It passed the Senate unanimously, and the House by a bipartisan margin of 95-17.
However, in a hearing last month, when more than 100 Chinese Americans turned out to protest the bill and warn that it would contribute to anti-Asian racism, lawmakers sought to assure them that the intent of the bill is not to harm any people currently living in Florida.
'The only people who this bill discriminates against is the Communist Party of China,' Republican Florida State Representative David Borrero said during a hearing last month. 'The only people who have worried about not being able to buy land here? Those who are not living here.'
That assertion was echoed by Democratic State Representative Katherine Waldron. 'I think everybody in that room is probably not included in this bill,' she said after the hearing. 'We're not trying to cause anybody harm who lives here.'
Laws not unique
At least 13 states have laws on the books that prohibit or restrict foreign ownership of land dedicated to agriculture. According to data collected by the Congressional Research Service, only about 3.1% of private agricultural land was owned by foreign nationals or corporations in 2021.
In the wake of the controversy over a Chinese spy balloon that traversed part of the U.S. earlier this year, a number of other states have seen similar legislation introduced.
Florida's focus on residential and other property makes it the first such bill to expand a ban on foreign ownership beyond agricultural land, but it is not likely to be the last. Lawmakers in Texas, for example, have been considering legislation that would bar citizens of China, Russia, or Iran from owning homes in the state.
Toomey, of the ACLU, said his organization has identified new legislation targeting foreign ownership of property in a dozen different states.
Restrictions common worldwide
Restrictions on foreign ownership of residential property, while new to the U.S., are not uncommon around the world. Such laws are adopted for a variety of reasons, including concerns about national security, money laundering, and high housing prices.
In January, Canada began enforcing a new law barring foreign investors from buying residential properties there for two years. The measure was intended to reduce inflated housing costs, which lawmakers believed were being caused, in part, by non-citizens purchasing homes.
Early this year, the government of Spain's Balearic Islands, which include Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza, lobbied for a ban on noncitizens purchasing residences there, claiming that wealthy foreigners were driving prices so high that people native to the islands could no longer afford to live there.
Other European countries also place restrictions on foreigners seeking to purchase residences, including Austria, Denmark, Italy and Switzerland. In some cases, the laws have been on the books for decades.