Nikkei Asia: Florida ban on Chinese buying property goes to U.S. appeals court

Image for Nikkei Asia: Florida ban on Chinese buying property goes to U.S. appeals court
New townhomes are seen in a subdivision in Tampa, Florida. Credit: Reuters

Law has chilling effect for Asian Americans in general, say plaintiff's supporters

MARRIAN ZHOU, Nikkei staff writer

NEW YORK -- A federal appellate court in Miami hears arguments Friday in a lawsuit challenging Florida's alien land law, which bans Chinese citizens from buying most property in the state and has been criticized as discriminatory.

Lawyers representing Chinese plaintiffs will argue that this law is unconstitutional and ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to block the law "more broadly" after the court initially halted enforcement against two of the individual plaintiffs, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last May, SB264 (23R) prohibits nationals from China, Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Russia and North Korea from buying homes in the state.

That month, a lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, ACLU of Florida, DeHeng Law Offices, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and the Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance (CALDA) on behalf of four Chinese citizens and a Florida real estate brokerage that mainly serves Chinese clients, alleging the ban was discriminatory.

The lawsuit, Shen vs. Simpson, did not list DeSantis as a defendant. The defendants are Wilton Simpson, Florida's agriculture commissioner; Meredith Ivey, then the state's acting secretary of economic opportunity; and Patricia Fitzgerald, then chair of the Florida Real Estate Commission.

The three defendants did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The circuit court in February blocked the law from being enforced against two of the individual plaintiffs ahead of a decision on the merits of the appeal. The court unanimously held that the plaintiffs "showed a substantial likelihood of success on their claim" that the ban is "preempted by federal law," court documents show.

Bethany Li, legal director of AALDEF, told Nikkei Asia there has been an "unintended impact" of the ban, involving Chinese who are renting property spaces. Li cited an incident in which a Florida landlord asked a Chinese commercial real estate company that had been renting the space for years to vacate before the law went into effect last July.

"That's not because of anything that the law says," Li said. "I think [it's] the broader stigmatization and chilling effect that the law has created for not only Chinese people in the state of Florida, but Asian Americans in general."

Her organization is partnering with community and grassroots groups to devise ways to oppose similar laws nationwide. As of last May, 33 U.S. states have introduced some form of property legislation, according to APA Justice. About 11 states have passed such legislation including Texas, North Dakota and Oklahoma. Some bills failed, while others are still pending.

"Florida's law is the most egregious. It's the most sweeping. It's the worst for its criminal penalties on Chinese people," Li said. "But there're a lot of laws that have passed, unfortunately, in other states that have a similar effect in terms of wanting to keep Chinese people out."

Under the Florida law, Chinese citizens buying homes could face up to five years in prison, the seller could face up to one year in prison, and both sides can be fined thousands of dollars.

The court could rule that Florida's alien land law is unconstitutional, preempted by federal law and violates the Fair Housing Act. But the decision could take months.

DeSantis touted the property ban last year during his presidential campaign before dropping out of the race for the Republican nomination.

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump appear headed for a rematch in the November election, and as it nears, Li said the Asian American community is concerned about worsening anti-Asian behaviors in the U.S.

"I think the fact that these types of laws are even passing in different states is a result of the kind of increased anti-China rhetoric that we saw during the Trump administration," Li said. "But honestly, I think we've seen this rhetoric [in both the Republican and Democratic parties]."

"I think politicians score easy points by making the Chinese government the enemy," she said. "But what ends up happening is that it's really Chinese people and Asian Americans here that end up being harmed by many of these statements and much of this discriminatory rhetoric, because it gives the general impression that it's OK to attack even Americans."


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