Justice Department Says New Florida Law Restricting Chinese Land Ownership is Unconstitutional


WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice this week said a new law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that restricts some Chinese citizens from owning property in Florida violates federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, said in May that the measure helps Florida lead the way among states in protecting national security.

But the DOJ said in a “statement of interest” filed in U. S. District Court in Tallahassee that the legislation, FL SB264 (23R), violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

“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 DOJ wrote.

The new law takes effect July 1.

The legal action by the department is just the latest skirmish between the Biden administration and DeSantis in recent years, but this marks the first significant conflict since DeSantis jumped into the race for president a month ago.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the governor’s office or Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. Nor were comments provided in response to a request from the state Department of Economic Opportunity or Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, both of which are named as defendants in the lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

A Simpson spokesperson said the commissioner would allow his reply brief due to be filed in federal court by July 3 to speak for itself.

DeSantis on the campaign trail has repeatedly warned that the Chinese represent one of the biggest threats against the U.S. and contended that Biden has been too weak in dealing with the communist country.

“Our food security is also our national security,” DeSantis said at the bill signing event last month. “So we don’t want the CCP in charge of any of the food production.”

Chinese citizens and Asian-Americans living in Florida warned legislators last spring that they would face discrimination and harassment if the bill passed. The Senate voted 31-8 to pass the bill and the House backed the bill by a 95-17 vote.

The new law labels seven nations as a “foreign country of concern” — China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela — and restricts property ownership for some residents from those countries.

In addition, some Chinese citizens would be prohibited from purchasing more than two acres of land, and there are misdemeanor criminal penalties for property sellers who knowingly violate the law.

The ACLU says the new law would cast “an undue burden of suspicion” on anyone trying to buy a house as long as their “name sounds remotely Asian.”

Four Chinese immigrants and Multi-Choice Realty, LLC are plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit filed in May and requested an emergency preliminary injunction earlier this month blocking implementation of the law. U.S. District Judge Allen C. Winsor has scheduled a July 18 hearing on the motion.

The Department of Justice in its court filing this week said the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the case’s merits. The DOJ enforces the Fair Housing Act and has a strong interest in eradicating housing discrimination, the statement said.

DOJ states that the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on nationality and that non-immigrant visa holders from the seven countries will be the most affected by the new law.

And the department says additional restrictions on owning land near military installations and “critical” infrastructure will make large parts of Florida “essentially off-limits” to people based on their nationality.

“Florida has yet to identify any legitimate connection between protecting the State and prohibiting individuals who simply come from ‘foreign countries of concern,’ from purchasing or owning real property,” the agency wrote.

The DOJ press office did not respond to or acknowledge an email with questions about the role of the department in the case. But Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney with ACLU’s National Security Project, said the Biden Administration’s involvement is significant.

“DOJ has weighed in because Florida’s law is blatantly unconstitutional and violates the Fair Housing Act,” Gorski said. “Their brief underscores just how egregious SB 264 is, and we look forward to making that case in court on July 18.”