As a judge heard arguments Tuesday on a motion to block Florida’s new law that prohibits Chinese citizens from owning land in the state, protesters rallied against the legislation, slamming Gov. Ron DeSantis for the “racist” measure.
The protesters, led by several Asian American civil rights groups, gathered outside the Tallahassee courthouse in support of the group of Chinese immigrants who sued the state over the law, which went into effect July 1.
Echo King, president of the nonprofit group Florida Asian American Justice Alliance, which helped spearhead the rally, told NBC News that the law could have chilling effects.
“This will legalize Asian hate,” King said. “People will have a reason — legally they have a law backing them up — to hate. … I can’t even imagine what kinds of hate crimes will increase.”
DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment.
Local Asian American groups were joined by several national organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP and the National Fair Housing Alliance, as well as protesters who traveled from out of state to support the plaintiffs. In their suit, the plaintiffs, who are in part represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the law is a form of housing discrimination and in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
“Today we gather here to condemn Florida’s ‘alien land law’ and to reject the dangerous trend of anti-Asian scapegoating,” said Nicholas Gee, advocacy manager for nonprofit group Chinese for Affirmative Action, referring to 20th century laws, which were later deemed unconstitutional, that prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land. “This law is not just an attack on the property rights of individuals of Chinese descent; it is a stark reminder of the discriminatory practices of the past that we have fought so hard to overcome.”
Protesters also argued that the “overbroad” law plays on harmful stereotypes portraying all Chinese immigrants as working for the Chinese government.
“They have no evidence proving that these people coming from [China] and living in the U.S. have anything to do with national security issues,” King said.
Under the law, SB 264, those who aren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents whose “domiciles,” or permanent homes, are in China are banned from purchasing property in the state. Chinese nationals violating the law could face $5,000 fines and up to five years in prison, while sellers who knowingly violate the measure could face up to one year in prison and $1,000 fines.
Other non-U.S. citizens from “foreign countries of concern,” including Cuba and Venezuela, are subject to lesser yet similar terms. They would be restricted from buying or owning land within 10 miles of any “military installation” or “critical infrastructure facility” in Florida.
The law does allow an exception, stating that those who are on nontourist visas, or who have been granted asylum, may purchase one residential property under 2 acres. These properties, however, cannot be within 5 miles of any military installation. And with more than 20 military installations in Florida, King said the restriction zone covers the majority of the state.
The complicated terms of the law, King said, could lead to racial profiling out of fear of possible repercussions.
“There’s no clear definition,” she said. “This law subjects both buyer and seller to civil and criminal penalties, so the sellers will be very reluctant to sell to any Chinese people because they can’t tell if their house is in the restriction zone and they cannot tell if the buyer is from the restricted category. The law is very complicated and confusing.”
Drawing parallels between the Trump-era China initiative — a security program aimed at addressing Chinese economic espionage that was heavily criticized for racial profiling — as well as then-President Donald Trump’s “China virus” rhetoric amid the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, King said that legislation is likely to similarly stoke anti-Asian hate. She also noted that the legislation could have a larger impact on many groups across the Asian diaspora, not just Chinese Americans.
“Most of the people in the community can’t tell Chinese from other Asian communities,” she said. “They will just probably stay away from the other ‘Asian-looking’ people.”
The ban has prompted uproar and controversy since DeSantis signed the bill in May. Several organizations, including the ACLU, filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs shortly afterward. The groups then filed an emergency preliminary injunction in early June in an attempt to block the law from being implemented while the lawsuit was still ongoing. However, the judge scheduled the hearing for after the law was to go into effect. In late June, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in support of the plaintiffs.
“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,” the Justice Department wrote in its filing.
Florida is among several states — including Montana, Arkansas, Idaho and Tennessee — that have considered or proposed legislation restricting Chinese nationals from owning land. But not all have been implemented.
In Texas, a similarly controversial bill died in the state House in May.
“There’s people who are asking if they need to get out of the state, like right now,” Democratic Texas state Rep. Gene Wu, who represents a heavily Chinese district, told NBC News in March. “I have never seen the Chinese community this active and this motivated in my entire adult life. The community is inflamed right now. They are enraged.”