Bill restricting Chinese from buying Florida land passes House

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TALLAHASSEE — Floridians who are Black, gay, transgender or immigrants have accused Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature of targeting them in policies and bills this year.

Now, many Chinese Americans say they feel discriminated against by a DeSantis priority bill that would prohibit people “domiciled” in China from owning property or land in the state if they’re not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

SB 264 would limit land purchases near military bases and critical infrastructure from residents of a handful of foreign adversaries, including Russia, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.

Only Chinese citizens would be prohibited from owning land — or homes — anywhere in the state.

The legislation has sparked protests outside the Capitol, divided Democrats and prompted lawmakers to imply that those against the bill were conspiring with the Chinese Communist Party.

“Chinese Americans and Chinese residents who are here in Florida have been silenced, likely by China, for merely speaking out in support of this bill,” Rep. David Borrero, R-Sweetwater, told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The bill is in reaction to reports of Chinese buying land around the country. Last month, federal charges were filed against two men accused of running an unauthorized Chinese police outpost in New York City.

Several other states are considering or have adopted similar measures. The Texas Senate recently passed a version that restricts purchases of agricultural land, timberland and oil and gas rights.

“If this bill mirrored the legislation in Texas, I would be an upvote all day, every day,” said Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, who voted against the Florida House bill. “They got the language right.”

This week, House lawmakers amended SB 264 to ease the restrictions on foreign nationals from “countries of concern” other than China — Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.

Previously, they would have been prohibited from owning land within 20 miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure, such as a seaport or wastewater treatment plant. Now the limit is just one mile from those facilities.

The House voted for the bill 95-17, with several Democrats voting for the bill. The bill now heads back to the Senate, which already voted unanimously for the earlier version of the bill.

Since the Senate last voted for it, however, Floridians of Chinese descent have mobilized, holding protests across the state and forming the Florida Asian American Justice Alliance to fight the legislation.

On Saturday, Chinese Americans and recent immigrants protested outside the Capitol, chanting “Florida is our home” and holding signs to motorists that said, “No anti-Asian bill” and “Equal protection for all.”

Last month, more than 100 people spoke against the bill in a committee, recounting the racial insults they’ve heard and asking lawmakers to vote against the measure.

Several said they were concerned it would lead to racial profiling. If the bill passes, it would require home and land buyers to sign an affidavit that they’re not prohibited from buying land. Realtors would be subject to “civil or criminal liability” if they have “actual knowledge” that the transaction violates the law.

Rep. Katherine Waldron, D-Wellington, the Democratic co-sponsor, told lawmakers that she heard the protesters were bused in from Texas. She and Borrero said they know of Chinese Americans who have been threatened from speaking in favor of the bill and silenced on WeChat, the dominant phone app in China.

“Do not be intimidated by the vocal and aggressive actors we’ve seen in the past few weeks, who do not have our country’s best interests in mind,” Waldron said. “The communist threat to our nation is real.”

Records from the meeting show that nearly all of the opponents of the bill listed Florida addresses, and several were quickly verified through home ownership records. Several of the speakers said they were professors at Florida universities.

Democratic representatives who voted against the bill on Wednesday said they were bothered by the vague terms in the bill and lack of specifics about who would enforce the measures.

The term “domiciled” isn’t defined in the bill, for example, and Borrero wouldn’t define it when asked by Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.

The definition of “domicile” in Black’s Law Dictionary includes “a person’s true, fixed, principal, and permanent home, to which that person intends to return and remain even though currently residing elsewhere,” according to Tampa immigration lawyer Danielle Hernandez.

“It is a very technical term that is not widely known or accepted,” Hernandez said in a message.

Driskell said the bill had numerous problems and appeared unconstitutional.

“Who is going to enforce this? Realtors?” Driskell said Wednesday. “Come on. We are better than this.”

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