ACLU Applauds Appeals Court Decision Halting Enforcement of Florida Law That Bans Many Immigrants from China and Other Countries From Buying Homes

This decision temporarily blocks enforcement of Florida’s discriminatory housing law, known as SB 264, for two plaintiffs in this case

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
February 1, 2024 7:00 pm

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ATLANTA — The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals today temporarily halted the enforcement of an unconstitutional Florida law, known as SB 264, against two Chinese immigrants who have challenged the statute in court. SB 264 bans many Chinese immigrants, including people here as professors, students, employees, and scientists, from buying a home in large swaths of the state. This decision comes after a Florida district court ruled against the plaintiffs’ motion to preliminarily block the law while the case proceeded.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Florida, DeHeng Law Offices PC, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), and the law firm Quinn Emanuel are representing Chinese immigrants who live, work, study, and raise families in Florida, but would be prohibited under SB 264 from buying a home, as well as Multi-Choice Realty, a local real estate firm whose business has been harmed by the law.

“As a Chinese citizen who was in the process of buying a home when this law went into effect, I’ve been extremely worried ever since,” said a plaintiff impacted by today’s ruling. “Today’s decision is a relief for me and my family, and we hope that the courts will permanently halt enforcement of this law.”

The court of appeals unanimously held that the plaintiffs showed a substantial likelihood of prevailing in their arguments that SB 264 is preempted by federal law because Congress has already established a system of national security review of real estate purchases by foreign nationals. The court granted an injunction barring enforcement of the law against two of the plaintiffs while the court makes its decision on the merits of the appeal.

“There’s no doubt that Florida’s discriminatory housing law is unconstitutional,” said Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney at ACLU’s National Security Project. “The court’s decision brings two of our clients tremendous relief, and we will continue fighting to prevent this law from being enforced more broadly.”

Under SB 264, people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and whose “domicile,” or permanent home, is in China, are prohibited from purchasing property in Florida altogether. 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.

A similar but less restrictive rule also applies to many immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Syria. But the law singles out people from China for especially draconian restrictions and harsher criminal penalties.

“Florida’s alien land law specifically targets Chinese individuals in clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause,” said Bethany Li, legal director of AALDEF. “Today’s ruling should serve as a warning to other states who are considering passing similarly racist bills, steeped in a history when Asians were ineligible for citizenship and were told they didn’t belong. As a country, we should be making progress and passing laws that protect all communities rather than going back in time and reviving antiquated laws passed over a century ago.”

Florida’s pernicious new law recalls repeated efforts over the past century to weaponize false claims of “national security” against Asian and other immigrants. 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. Florida was one of the last states to repeal its “alien land law” in 2018.

“This Florida law is just like the alien land laws of more than a hundred years ago banning Asian Americans from owning land,” said Clay Zhu, attorney and managing partner at DeHeng Law Offices PC. “It is unfair, unconstitutional, and un-American. We are encouraged by today’s decision from the court.”

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