Florida says law restricting Chinese land ownership is not discriminatory
TALLAHASSEE — The state has pushed back against a challenge to a new law that restricts people from China and six other countries from owning property in Florida, disputing arguments that it is unconstitutional and discriminates based on “race and national origin.”
In a 59-page court document filed Monday, attorneys for the state said the Legislature passed the law this spring to “address threats posed by hostile foreign nations.”
“They (the restrictions) are consistent with the long tradition in this country of restricting alien land ownership, rooted in concerns for public safety and state security,” the document said. “Many states have such laws even today, driven by avoiding landlord absenteeism and foreign influence in America. They combat malign foreign influence in areas close to military installations and critical infrastructure, which raise cybersecurity, espionage and other national security concerns.”
The document, a memorandum of law, urged U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor to reject a request for a preliminary injunction to block the law, which took effect Saturday. Winsor is scheduled to hear arguments July 18.
Four Chinese people and a real-estate brokerage that serves Chinese clients filed a lawsuit and sought a preliminary injunction after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law (SB 264) in May. The lawsuit, which has been backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, contends that the restrictions violate constitutional rights and the federal Fair Housing Act.
“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,” Justice Department attorneys wrote last month in a court document supporting the lawsuit and a preliminary injunction. “Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of these claims challenging the provisions of SB 264 that restrict and prohibit land ownership.”
The law affects people from what Florida calls “foreign countries of concern” — China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria, with part of it specifically focused on Chinese people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.
It would prevent such Chinese people from purchasing property in Florida, with some exceptions. For example, they each would be allowed to purchase one residential property up to two acres if the property is not within five miles of a military base and they have non-tourist visas.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit have such things as work and student visas. One is seeking asylum in the United States, according to the lawsuit, which was filed May 22 and revised June 5.
The law also would prevent people from the seven “foreign countries of concern” from buying agricultural land and property near military bases. Those parts of the law would apply to people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.
DeSantis, who is running for president in 2024, and other supporters of the law have pointed to a need to curb the influence of the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party in Florida. But the plaintiffs are not part of the Chinese government or members of the Communist Party, according to the Justice Department filing.
Among the allegations in the case is that the law violates constitutional equal-protection rights and the Fair Housing Act because it is discriminatory.
But the memorandum of law filed Monday by lawyers in Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office and Tallahassee attorney Daniel Nordby said the law was “not motivated by racial or national-origin animus.”
“The people potentially subject to those restrictions encompass a wide range of ethnicities and national origins — from white, British-born, Dutch citizens who are domiciled in Hong Kong, to individuals born in China who remain domiciled there,” the document said. “Plaintiffs offer nothing that sheds light on the ethnicity of individuals domiciled in China who wish to invest in Florida land — a tiny and possibly unrepresentative fraction of those domiciled in China. Conversely, the statute exempts a range of racial and ethnic minorities … who are aliens from abroad.”
The state’s lawyers also argued that the plaintiffs lack legal standing to pursue the case. They said the law applies to people “domiciled” in China or companies controlled by such people.
“The individual plaintiffs are not domiciled in China so they are not even subject to the statute,” the state’s lawyers wrote. “Their declarations in fact establish that they are physically present in the United States and intend to remain here permanently or indefinitely.”