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Chinese immigrants sue to block ‘unconstitutional’ Florida law barring them from buying land

Ron DeSantis at "Stop CCP Influence" press conference

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) at “Stop CCP Influence” press conference. (Screenshot via YouTube/WTVT)

Four Chinese citizens who live and work in Florida sued officials on Monday to block a law signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis preventing them from buying land in the Sunshine State.

DeSantis himself isn’t a defendant in the 41-page federal complaint, but the lawsuit liberally quotes the governor’s remarks behind a podium marked “Stop CCP Influence” on the day he signed SB 264, dubbed by its critics as a modern-day Alien Land Law.

“Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat—the Chinese Communist Party,” DeSantis said on May 8. “I’m proud to sign this legislation to stop the purchase of our farmland and land near our military bases and critical infrastructure by Chinese agents, to stop sensitive digital data from being stored in China, and to stop CCP influence in our education system from grade school to grad school.”

In their lawsuit, the immigrants — Yifan Shen, Zhiming Xu, Xinxi Wang and Yongxin Liu — and the brokerage firm Multi-Choice Realty, LLC note that Chinese buyers account for some 0.1 percent of all real estate purchases in Florida. They say that the ban on property ownership, set to take effect on July 1, 2023, is nearly absolute.

“The sole exception to these prohibitions is incredibly narrow: people with non-tourist visas or who have been granted asylum may purchase one residential property under two acres that is not within five miles of any military installation in the state,” the complaint notes. “Notably, there are more than a dozen military installations in Florida, many of them within five miles of city centers like Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Pensacola, Panama City, and Key West.”

They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance (CALDA), which denounced the law as an “unconstitutional” and “xenophobic” successor to the centuries-old Chinese Exclusion Act.

“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,” said Clay Zhu, an attorney with DeHeng Law Offices PC and co-founder of CALDA. “We shall not go back.”

Enacted in May 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned laborers from China from immigrating to the country for 10 years. The law remained on the books for more than half a century until 1943, when China became a wartime ally of the United States against Japan.

Only in the last decade did this House and Senate unanimously denounce the old law in resolutions passed in 2011 and 2012.

Shen, the lead plaintiff who has a master’s degree in science, says that she’s lived in the United States for seven years and Florida for four. She says she’s not a member of the CCP and signed a contract in April for a single-family home in Orlando. If the law goes into effect, she says, she stands to lose all or part of her $25,000 for that transaction.

Xu says that he has temporary permission to live in the United States as a “political asylee,” claiming Chinese government persecution. Earlier this year, he signed a contract for a single-family home near Orlando, but he says that’s now in jeopardy because the property is within 10 miles of a “critical infrastructure facility.”

The lawsuit seeks an order declaring the Alien Land Law unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses, illegal under the Fair Housing Act and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution — and blocking the relevant Florida officials from enforcing it.

Those officials are Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson; Acting Secretary of Economic Opportunity Meredith Ivey; and chair of the Florida Real Estate Commission Patricia Fitzgerald.

A spokesperson for Gov. DeSantis didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

Read the complaint here.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."