A new Florida law that prohibits some Chinese citizens from buying property in the state violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, the Justice Department said in a filing this week.
The legislation, which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last month, also restricts — though it does not ban — land purchases by some citizens of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela.
Republican legislators in other states have proposed bills to ban Chinese citizens from buying or owning property, but Florida’s was the first to be signed into law.
"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 support of a lawsuit seeking to block the law.
The law, known as SB 264, which is set to take effect Saturday, places two sets of restrictions on land ownership in Florida, according to the filing.
The first set of restrictions prohibits non-U.S. citizens from "foreign countries of concern" from buying or owning land within 10 miles of any “military installation” or “critical infrastructure facility” in Florida.
Property buyers or sellers who violate the restriction could face up to 60 days in prison and a $500 fine.
Under the law, Chinese citizens and those selling property to them face the harshest restrictions and penalties, with the second set prohibiting people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents and are "domiciled in the People’s Republic of China" from owning or purchasing any property in Florida.
Property sellers who knowingly violate the second set could face up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine. Chinese nationals who violate the law could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
DeSantis, who is running for the White House, said last month that the law aims to “counteract” what he called “the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the state of Florida.”
Representatives from the governor's office, the DeSantis campaign and the Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Critics argue that the law will worsen existing discrimination and that it could cause property owners in Florida to become hesitant to sell to members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community out of fear of violating it.
"DeSantis has said this bill is necessary to combat the influence of the Chinese Communist Policy in Florida, but he is wrongly equating Chinese people with the Chinese government," Patrick Toomey and Clay Zhu, two of the plaintiffs in the suit, wrote in a recent Time magazine op-ed.
As tensions between the U.S. and China continue to worsen, "we’re once again seeing politicians like DeSantis lean into racism, hate, and fear for their own political gain," wrote Toomey, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, and Zhu, a partner at DeHeng Law in California.
Manjusha Kulkarni, the executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance and a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, compared the measure to the "alien land laws" passed in California and other states in the 20th century, which restricted Asian migrants' right to own land. The law, she said, signals to Chinese Americans "that they don't belong."
"There's no question that these bans on Chinese land ownership would have a devastating impact on Chinese immigrants in the United States, essentially preventing them from buying homes and settling their families" she said. "Measures like this appear to be solutions looking for a problem."