A series of new laws have been introduced in states throughout the country and at the federal level which aim to restrict the ability to purchase property on the basis of national origin. SB 147 in Texas, the most infamous of these bills, has gained national attention and pushback from Asian Americans, Iranian Americans and those dedicated to protecting civil liberties. Similar bills in Florida – HB 1355 and SB 264 – are moving quickly and risk further eroding the rights of immigrant communities in the state. At the time of writing, HB 1355 had been reported favorably by the appropriations committee while SB 264 passed the Senate on a unanimous vote.
What do the bills do?
The bills are largely similar and pose a number of restrictions on various interactions with “foreign countries of concern,” defined as “ the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Cuba, the Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro, or the Syrian Arab Republic.” These restrictions include barring contracting with and prohibiting economic incentives to entities owned, controlled by or based in the foreign countries of concern. Given existing embargoes and sanctions targeting many of the “foreign countries of concern,” it is unclear if the state of Florida contracts with any such entities and whether such new restrictions will have any practical effect. However, restrictions laid out in Sections 5 through 7 of the bills raise significant civil liberties concerns.
Section 5 bars foreign principals – defined as “Any person who is domiciled in a foreign country of concern and is not a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States” – from purchasing or acquiring any agricultural property in the state. It also requires those foreign principals who have already purchased said property to register with the state. Future buyers of agricultural land will have to sign an affidavit affirming they are not a foreign principal, which is language that will be set at a later date. Violators could be subject to penalties and forfeiture.
Section 6 expands on these restrictions and states that “A foreign principal may not directly or indirectly own or acquire by purchase, grant, devise, or descent any interest, except a de minimus indirect interest, in real property within 20 miles of any military installation or critical infrastructure facility in this state.” This is likely to encompass a ban on property purchases across the entirety of the state, as critical infrastructure is defined in the bill to encompass ubiquitous facilities including electrical power grid infrastructure, water treatment facilities and seaports. SB 264 also includes airports in its definition of critical infrastructure, which would encompass 140 facilities scattered across the state including in populous areas. Like the restrictions on purchases of agricultural property, those foreign principals who have already acquired such property will have to register with the state. Future buyers of real estate within 20 miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure will have to sign an affidavit affirming they are not a foreign principal, which is language that will be set at a later date. Violators could be subject to penalties and forfeiture.
Section 7 expands these prohibitions to impose a broad ban on individuals of Chinese heritage. According to the bill, “any official or member of the People’s Republic of China or the Chinese Communist Party,” entities based in China or “Any person who is domiciled in the People’s Republic of China and who is not a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States” would be subject to a ban on purchasing property across the entire state. Like the other restrictions above, any person or entity that qualifies as a foreign principal of China that currently owns property would be forced to register with the state. Future buyers of property will have to sign an affidavit affirming they are not affiliated with the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party or domiciled in China, which is language that will be set at a later date. Violators could be subject to penalties and forfeiture.
A Direct Threat to Civil Liberties
These restrictions are quite expansive, and at times overlapping, and may radically reshape real estate purchases by immigrant communities by encouraging housing discrimination against those perceived to be of Chinese, Russian, Iranian, Korean, Cuban, Venezuelan or Syrian descent. If individuals believe – rightly or wrongly – that it is a violation of state law to sell property to individuals with heritage from a “foreign country of concern,” such a law is likely to encourage sellers to self-enforce the law in discriminatory fashion. The authors likely intended to shield its true impact by emphasizing that it is about protecting farmland and national security near critical infrastructure, but in truth it would likely constitute a near total ban on property purchases across the entire state for those deemed to constitute foreign principals. 20 miles near critical infrastructure is a very broad range and it is unclear what areas, if any, might be excluded from the restrictions.
In so doing, the bill – and similar restrictive bills that seek to ban on the basis of national origin – follow in a long line of racist restrictions that had false national security justifications. Like the Chinese Exclusion Act and Muslim ban, targeting on the basis of national origin is just plain wrong and harmful.
Just how damaging this law can be is not yet totally clear, as much of the language is vague and requires Florida agencies to spell out the binding language in future affidavits that would be signed upon the purchase of various properties. One can imagine that foreign nationals who maintain a residence in their countries of origin would be at risk of being considered “domiciles” of a foreign country of concern and thus barred from purchasing agricultural land or property.
In the context of Iran, this could potentially involve Iranian nationals who are pursuing the American dream in Florida but who maintain property in Iran or regularly return to check on and visit loved ones. If so, they would be restricted from purchasing new property largely on the basis of their national origin. Iranian nationals and others impacted by the law would have less rights from their peers. American immigrants or persons of heritage of the targeted countries may well also face the prospect of having to “show their papers” before a realtor would entertain their offer on a house based on their name and how they look. Some, seeking to follow the law and avoid possible legal disputes that include the risk of forfeiture, would likely choose to instead forego the purchase of property even if they would not technically be considered a domicile of a foreign country of concern under future application of the law.
The above restrictions are bad enough, but risk leading to a slippery slope and further targeting on the basis of national origin. While legal permanent residents and citizens are not directly impacted yet, they may be by housing discrimination triggered by this law. Moreover, given that there is no clear problem that this bill seeks to address, it appears to be driven by xenophobia rather than any specific policy outcome.Back to top