Academics challenge Florida law restricting research exchanges from prohibited countries like China

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MIAMI (AP) — Two graduate students from China whose studies were put on hold, and a professor who says he is unable to recruit research assistants, sued Florida education officials on Monday, trying to stop enforcement of a new state law which limits research exchanges between state universities and academics from seven prohibited countries.

The law passed last year by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis was designed to stop the Chinese Communist government and others from influencing the state’s public colleges and universities. The countries on the prohibited list are China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela.

The law is discriminatory, unconstitutional and reminiscent of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which instituted a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Miami.

The new law also usurps the power of the federal government, which has exclusive authority over immigration, national security and foreign affairs, the lawsuit said.

The law has forced two of the plaintiffs who are from China to put their graduate studies at Florida International University on hold and denied them entry into their research labs. The University of Florida professor who also is originally from China said the law has stopped him from recruiting the most qualified postdoctoral candidates to assist with his research, which has slowed his publishing productivity and research projects, according to the lawsuit.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs said they aren't members of the Chinese government nor the Communist Party.

According to the law, international students from the prohibited countries can be hired on a case-by-case basis with approval from the Board of Governors which oversees state universities or the state Board of Education, but the lawsuit said the law's “vagueness and lack of adequate guidance empowers and encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement across Florida.”

The law “is having and will have far-reaching stigmatizing effects against individuals from China and of Asian descent who are seeking academic employment in Florida public universities and colleges, including plaintiffs, as Florida law now presumptively deems them a danger to the United States,” the lawsuit said.

The governor's office and the state Department of Education didn't respond to emails seeking comment.