Federal judge refuses to block Florida law that restricts people from China from owning land

USA & China flags
USA and China flags. Illustration by ffikretow via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge Thursday refused to block a new Florida law that restricts people from China from owning property in the state, saying plaintiffs are unlikely to be able to show the measure was motivated by discrimination or lacks a “rational basis.”

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor issued a 51-page decision denying a request by four Chinese people and a real-estate brokerage that serves Chinese clients for a preliminary injunction against the law, which Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved this spring.

The lawsuit, which has been supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, contends that the land-ownership restrictions violate constitutional equal-protection rights and the federal Fair Housing Act and are trumped by federal law. But in denying the injunction request, Winsor said plaintiffs had not “shown a substantial likelihood of success” on the issues.

The case centers on part of the law that prevents people “domiciled” in China from purchasing property in Florida, with some exceptions. Such people 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. Three of the plaintiffs are in the United States on visas, while one is seeking asylum.

Winsor wrote that U.S. Supreme Court precedents have “held that states could deny aliens ownership interests in land within their respective borders absent an arbitrary or unreasonable basis.” He also indicated a key is that the “law classifies based on where an alien is domiciled.”

“It does not facially discriminate against noncitizens based on race or ancestry. It does not discriminate against noncitizens based on ‘the particular country in which one was born,’” Winsor wrote, partially quoting a Supreme Court precedent. “So contrary to plaintiffs’ arguments, the challenged law is facially neutral as to race and national origin. It would apply to a person of Chinese descent domiciled in China the same way it would apply to a person not of Chinese descent domiciled in China. And its application would never turn on a person’s race.”

Winsor, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, also wrote that the plaintiffs had not “shown a substantial likelihood that unlawful animus motivated the Legislature” in passing the measure (SB 264).

“The most relevant impact-related evidence that plaintiffs offer are legislative committee reports,” he wrote. “At best, however, these reports evince awareness of the consequences for aliens domiciled in China. ‘Discriminatory purpose’ requires more than that. And as to race and national origin, the reports do not even show any awareness of consequences for those of Chinese descent or those born in China. As for the statements from the governor or legislators, none evinces racial animus or any intent to discriminate based on race or where someone was born. Nor do they show any intent to discriminate against Chinese citizens ‘because of’ their Chinese citizenship. Instead, the statements are consistent with motivations independent of any protected traits.”

During the legislative session, DeSantis and Republican lawmakers pointed to a need to curb the influence of the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party in Florida.

State Solicitor General Henry Whitaker told Winsor during a hearing last month that the law is designed to protect the security of Florida.

“The state is concerned with the influence of the Chinese Community Party and their agents in Florida,” Whitaker said.

But Ashley Gorski, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the plaintiffs, said during the hearing that the state has relied on “pernicious stereotypes” to conflate people from China with the Chinese government.

The overall law affects people from what Florida calls “foreign countries of concern” — China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria, with the disputed part specifically focusing on people from China who are not U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are not part of the Chinese government or members of the Communist Party, according to a U.S. Justice Department filing in June.

The Justice Department filed what is known as a “statement of interest” contending the law violates equal-protection rights and the 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.

The overall law prevents people from the seven “foreign countries of concern” from buying agricultural land and property near military bases. Those parts of the law apply to people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.

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