• Ideas
  • justice

Florida Really Just Banned Chinese Immigrants from Owning Property. We’re Suing

6 minute read
Toomey is the Deputy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. Zhu is a Co-Founder of the Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance (CALDA) and the Managing Partner at DeHeng Law Offices PC in California

Barring people from buying a house because of where they’re from is unconstitutional and unacceptable. And yet that’s exactly what Florida’s new law attempts to do.

On May 8, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed SB 264 into law, putting much of Florida off-limits to many Chinese immigrants, including people here lawfully as professors, students, employees, and scientists who are looking to buy a home in the state. The law also unfairly discriminates against many immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. But it singles out people from China for especially draconian restrictions and harsher criminal penalties.

With geopolitical tensions between the United States and Chinese government rising, we’re once again seeing politicians like DeSantis lean into racism, hate, and fear for their own political gain. Florida’s pernicious new law weaponizes false claims of “national security” against Asian immigrants and others.

Worryingly, Florida isn’t alone. Lawmakers across the country are trying to enact similar laws to ban Chinese citizens and other immigrants from owning property, but Florida’s is the first one to pass and go into effect. That’s why our organizations and our partners—the ACLU, the Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance, the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, and the law firm Quinn Emanuel—are working to challenge Florida’s unconstitutional law in court and have asked a judge to block the law from going into effect on July 1.

More from TIME

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. This law will not keep Floridians safe. It instead codifies and expands housing discrimination against people of Asian descent—something expressly forbidden by the Fair Housing Act. It will also put a burden of suspicion on anyone with a name that sounds vaguely Asian (not to mention Russian, Iranian, Cuban, Venezuelan, or Syrian), perpetuating racist stereotypes even more.

Read More: What Ron DeSantis’ Florida Agenda Could Mean for America

This is history repeating itself: In the early 20th century, politicians used similar justifications to pass “alien land laws” in California and more than a dozen other states prohibiting Chinese and Japanese immigrants from becoming landowners. Over time, these laws were struck down by the courts because they violated the Constitution’s equal protection guarantees or were repealed by state legislatures. But not before people were harmed.

For instance, in 1915, California’s alien land law forced Japanese immigrants Jukichi and Ken Harada to purchase their family home in the name of their children, who were U.S. citizens. Neighbors were so outraged they tried to pressure the family to sell the house and leave. When they refused, the neighbors sued them in court. Eventually a judge agreed that because the children were U.S. citizens with equal rights under the law, the family was entitled to stay in their home. Although the Harada family won their case, anti-Asian sentiment continued to rise, and 25 years later, they were forced from the same home and into internment camps as part of the Japanese American incarceration of World War II.

Discriminatory new land laws in Florida and other states around the country could cause immense harm, too. The plaintiffs in our lawsuit are Chinese immigrants who live, work, study, and raise families in Florida—but they will soon be prohibited from purchasing real estate there. Zhiming Xu, is a Chinese citizen who lives in Florida and came to the U.S. after fleeing political persecution in China. Earlier this year, Xu signed a contract to purchase a new home near Orlando, with a closing date of September 2023. But because of Florida’s law, he will be forced to cancel the contract, putting both his deposit and his dreams for the future in jeopardy.

Similarly in Louisiana, high school senior Abigail Hu recently testified against a similar bill being considered there. “This bill tells us that we are not good Americans, we are not Americans deserving of protection under the law, we are not Americans that the legislators we elect care to serve,” Hu said. “This bill tells us that we are Americans whose lives are pure political pawns, subject to the whims of the state and condemned to exist under a perpetual instability.”

Under Florida’s new law, people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and whose “domicile,” or permanent home, is in China, will be prohibited from purchasing property altogether. (A similar but less restrictive rule would apply to citizens of Cuba, Venezuela, and other “countries of concern.”) The sole exception 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.” This term is vaguely defined in the law, but there are at least 21 large military bases in Florida, many of them within five miles of cities like Orlando, Miami, and Tampa—putting many major residential and economically-important areas completely off-limits.

In addition to imposing economic harms on immigrants and their communities, the law fuels discrimination and xenophobia. When politicians pass laws and engage in rhetoric that stigmatizes Asian communities—like President Trump’s “China virus” claim—anti-Asian hate crimes ensue. Laws like Florida’s, and similar proposals around the country, raise widespread fears of more harassment and violence.

DeSantis and the Florida legislature have sent a clear message: The state believes home ownership by Chinese citizens is a threat to national security. This view is racist and baseless. Just as there was no actual evidence to justify the alien land laws of an earlier era, there is no evidence of any actual national security harm resulting from real estate ownership by Chinese people in Florida.

At a time when one in two Asian Americans report feeling unsafe in the U.S. due to their ethnicity and nearly 80% don’t feel they fully belong or are accepted, Florida’s leaders have a responsibility to the people who live there to do better. Until they do, we’ll see them in court.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.