Courthouse News: Florida restriction on property purchases by Chinese immigrants

Image for Courthouse News: Florida restriction on property purchases by Chinese immigrants
A sign noting a pending sale is shown in front of a home on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023, in Concord, Mass. Credit: Peter Morgan/AP Photo

A group of Chinese immigrants living in Florida seeking to buy homes argue the law unconstitutionally discriminates against them based on their national origin.

By Megan Butler

(CN) — On Friday, an 11th Circuit panel in Miami will hear arguments over a lawsuit challenging a Florida law that bans many immigrants from China and other foreign countries from purchasing homes in vast portions of the state.

The suit was brought by four Chinese immigrants who live, work, study, and raise families in Florida, but are prohibited under Senate Bill 264 from buying a home. Multi-Choice Realty, a local real estate firm whose business has been harmed by the law, is also a plaintiff.

Three of the individual plaintiffs reside in Florida on time-limited, nonimmigrant visas, and the fourth is seeking political asylum. They are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, DeHeng Law Offices PC, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the law firm Quinn Emanuel.

“By putting huge parts of the state off-limits to people who simply want to buy a home, this law expands discrimination against people of Asian descent,” deputy director of ACLU’s National Security Project, Patrick Toomey said.

“Discriminatory housing practices have long shaped who has access to quality education, health care, security, opportunity, and wealth, and this law is no different. We look forward to explaining to the court of appeals why this unconstitutional law must be halted.”

Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis enacted the SB 264 law in 2023 to restrict land purchases by immigrants from "foreign countries of concern," including China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Syria, on or within 10 miles of any military installation or critical infrastructure facility within the state.

There are more than 20 military bases in Florida, many of them within five miles of city centers like Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Pensacola, Panama City, and Key West, and there are many other sites across the state that may qualify as “military installations.”

The law specifically restricts people from China who are not citizens or lawful permanent residents from owning any real property in Florida, regardless of location. The sole exception is that people with a valid non-tourist visa or who have been granted asylum are permitted to purchase one residential property, but only if it is less than two acres and not within five miles of a military installation.

Any person living in Florida that is “domiciled” in China must register their existing property with the state or face civil penalty and forfeiture consequences for failure to comply. Under the law, Chinese immigrants face up to five years in prison for trying to buy a home — the seller faces up to one year in prison — as well as thousands of dollars in fines.

When DeSantis signed the bill into law, his office issued a statement stating that it was enacted "to counteract the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the state of Florida," and that its passage showed that “Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat — the Chinese Communist Party.”

The law is meant to mitigate the influence of hostile foreign governments and is within the state's traditional sovereign authority to regulate the acquisition of its land, the Florida Department of Agriculture said in its brief to the 11th Circuit.

"The statute draws lines on that basis, not based on race or national origin. And nothing the federal government has done — including through the limited regulatory authority and scarce resources afforded to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — precludes Florida from exercising core state sovereign authority over its own land," the department wrote.

In its brief, the department argued the provisions targeting Chinese immigrants are necessary due to concerns over a Chinese food manufacturer's attempt to purchase 300 acres of agricultural land just 12 miles from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. It claimed that the Air Force believed the purchase posed a threat to national security because the base was home to some of the country's most sophisticated, top secret military drone technology.

A recent letter from 130 lawmakers to the U.S. Government Accountability Office had also expressed concern that "foreign investment in U.S. farmland could result in foreign control of available U.S. farmland, especially prime agricultural lands, and possibly lead to foreign control over food production and food prices," according to the department.

Multiple states including Idaho, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah filed an amicus brief in support of Florida, arguing states should be free to prevent foreign principals from having unfettered access to their lands.

The U.S. government, however, filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs, arguing that the law violates the Fair Housing Act and equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

"These unlawful provisions will cause serious harm to people simply because of their national origin, contravene federal civil rights laws, undermine constitutional rights, and will not advance the state’s purported goal of increasing public safety," the government wrote in its brief.

Civil rights groups including the ACLU say the law increases widespread fears of harassment and violence at a time when more that one in two Asian Americans report feeling unsafe in the U.S. due to their ethnicity. After SB 264 was signed into law, Florida passed another law restricting public universities from employing international students from China and other “countries of concern” as graduate assistants.

This year, the 11th Circuit barred enforcement of the law against two of the plaintiffs with pending property transactions while the court decides the merits of the appeal. The unanimous panel found it substantially likely that SB 264 conflicts with federal law.

In a concurring opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Nancy Abudu, the Joe Biden appointee wrote the Supreme Court and other courts across the county have recognized that state-based “alien” restrictions, once legally upheld, no longer stand constitutional muster.

A lower court had denied the plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction largely based on Terrace v. Thompson, a Supreme Court case from a century ago that held “each state, in the absence of any treaty provision to the contrary, has power to deny to aliens the right to own land within its borders.”

Abudu wrote, "Those holdings may have had support in 1923, but it is now 2024 where 'state classifications based on alienage are subject to strict judicial scrutiny,’ absent the governmental function exception.

"Additionally, while the Supreme Court has not outright overruled the Terrace cases, the court itself has called those cases’ validity into question, and its more recent precedent is incongruent with the Terrace cases’ holdings."

U.S. Circuit judges Charles Wilson, a Bill Clinton appointee, and Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa, both appointed by Donald Trump, are set to hear Friday's arguments.


Read the article here: