Chinese immigrants sue Florida over law barring certain nationals from buying property

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A group of Chinese citizens who live and work in Florida sued the state Monday over a new law that bars Chinese citizens from buying property in large parts of the state.

The law applies to property within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of military installations and other «critical infrastructure» and also affects citizens of Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Russia and North Korea. But Chinese citizens and those who sell them property face the harshest penalties. The ban also applies to agricultural land.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the law will have a substantial deterrent effect on sales to Chinese and Asian people who can legally buy property. The lawsuit says the law unfairly equates the Chinese with their government’s actions and that there is no evidence of a national security risk from Chinese citizens buying property in Florida.

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 lawsuit. “It will also cast an undue load of suspicion on anyone looking to buy a property whose name sounds remotely Asian, Russian, Iranian, Cuban, Venezuelan or Syrian.”

Ties between the United States and China are strained amid rising tensions over security and trade. In nearly a dozen state chambers and Congress, a decades-long concern over foreign land ownership has flared since a Chinese spy balloon streaked through 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 into law on May 8. His office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The law will go into effect on July 1. It will be a felony for Chinese to purchase property in restricted areas or for any person or real estate company to knowingly sell to restricted persons. For the other target nations, the penalty is a misdemeanor for buyers and sellers.

It applies to military installations, as well as infrastructure such as airports and seaports, water and wastewater treatment plants, oil and natural gas processing facilities, power plants, spaceports, and telecommunications switching centers.

The ACLU says the law «will have the net effect of creating ‘Chinese no-go zones’ that will cover vast 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 Foreign Land Act of 1913 did over a hundred years ago,” the lawsuit says.

Those on the shortlist who already own property near critical infrastructure must register with the state or face fines of up to $1,000 per day. They are also prohibited from acquiring additional property. The law has provisions that allow the state to seize the property of offenders.

The number of states restricting foreign ownership of farmland increased by 50% this year.

Looking to 2023, 14 states had laws restricting foreign ownership or investment in private farmland. So far this year, restrictive laws have also been enacted in Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia.

Foreign land ownership has become “a political flash point,” said Micah Brown, a staff attorney at the University of Arkansas National Center for Farm Law.

Brown said the recent increase in state laws targeting land ownership by foreign entities stems from some highly publicized cases of Chinese-connected companies buying land near military bases. Earlier this year, the US Air Force said Fufeng Group’s planned $700 million wet corn milling plant near a base in Grand Forks, North Dakota, poses a «significant threat to national security».

After a Chinese army veteran and real estate mogul bought a wind farm near an Air Force base in Texas, that state responded in 2021 by banning infrastructure deals with people linked to hostile governments, including China.

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