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‘They’re treating us like we’re spies’: Florida property ban has Chinese citizens fuming

By Samantha Delouya, CNN

(CNN) — After his employer implemented a return-to-office policy last year, Jin Bian decided to cut down his one-hour commute time by purchasing a house closer to the office in Tampa, Florida. Then, he was told the purchase might get him prison time.

“That was really shocking to me. It’s just purchasing property,” Bian, who is originally form Nanjing, China, said. “Once I learned that, I didn’t even bother to look anymore.”

Bian, a 31-year-old software engineer who has lived in the US for 12 years, is a recipient of an H-1B visa, which allows companies to employ foreign workers. For nearly a year, however, it has been a crime for him to purchase a home in Florida after the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a law restricting Chinese nationals without US green cards from purchasing property in the state.

Bian and other Florida residents told CNN that the rules have fostered uneasiness and confusion among ethnic Chinese people living in the state. Some say the law has damaged their businesses, while others say they are considering abandoning Florida altogether. And the law underscores the heightened tensions between the two biggest economies in the world in a US presidential election year.

Bian said that lately, he had begun reconsidering his life in Florida. He isn’t alone. Ever since Florida Senate Bill 264 went into effect on July 1, 2023, Chinese citizens without green cards face a felony charge and possible prison time if they purchase property in the state. Sellers and real estate agents can also be found liable under the law.

“We feel like we’re different from everyone else because of this type of law,” said Echo King, a US citizen who was born in China and is president of the Florida Asian American Justice Alliance. “We feel like we’re not welcome.”

Chinese citizens barred from buying property in Florida

Under SB 264, citizens of Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria are prohibited from buying property within 10 miles of any “military installation or critical infrastructure facility” in Florida.

For Chinese citizens without the permanent right to live in the US, specifically, the law goes a step further, barring the group from purchasing any property in the state.

“Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),” DeSantis said in a statement last year.

The law is currently being challenged in court, but several other states are considering similar laws.

“Florida has gone far beyond what is necessary to combat the so-called CCP influence,” said Clay Zhu, an attorney who has partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the state, challenging the law. “We think this is a form of discrimination based on race, based on national origin and based on visa status.”

Zhu likened the law to past discriminatory laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act. He says there should be a distinction made between the CCP and Chinese nationals.

The law specifically bans the “purchase or acquisition of real property” by “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.” But the term “domiciled” isn’t fully defined in the law’s language.

Susan Li, a 47-year-old small business owner in Orlando, Florida, who holds a green card, said she “really felt the discrimination” when she learned about the bill.

Like Bian, Li had been searching for a new home when the law passed. Despite the fact that she is a legal resident of the US, her family decided to halt their housing search for fear of potential legal complications.

“I thought maybe it’s too much to bother, so I’m not looking right now,” she said. “No matter if I have a green card or I’m a citizen, I still have a Chinese face.”

Heightened fears of Chinese government spying

The controversial law comes at a time when relations between the US and China have grown increasingly tense.

Last year, fears of the Chinese government spying in the US reached a fever pitch after a Chinese surveillance balloon was discovered over Montana and eventually shot down by the US.

In addition to allegations that Chinese-owned apps like TikTok are used for spying (which TikTok denies), US lawmakers have increasingly warned that Chinese purchases of agricultural land pose a national security threat. According to the US Department of Agriculture, China owns 349,442 acres of agricultural and non-agricultural land in the US, representing slightly less than 1% of all foreign-held land in the US.

“The Chinese Communist Party, a dangerous foreign adversary, should not own Virginia’s farmland,” Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin said on social media last year. “That’s common sense.”

To Bian, accusations of spying are offensive.

“We’re ordinary people. We don’t talk about these political things,” he said. “I think 99.99% of people here just want to have a good life.”

Fallout from SB 264

Teresa Jin, a mortgage lender in Florida, said she no longer works with clients who are not permanent residents or citizens of the US, but the grey area around the law’s definition of “domiciled” has created uncertainty. Other lenders have agreed to close on deals that she previously rejected for fear of legal repercussions.

“The law has caused us so much confusion,” she said. “It definitely hurts business.”

Zhu said that some mortgage lenders and brokers in Florida have even begun refusing to work with clients with Chinese passports — even if they are legal residents.

“People feel as if they are being treated as spies or agents of the Chinese government,” Zhu said. “It’s very unfair and also very un-American.”

Jin, who is a citizen, said she plans to stay in Florida. But others are weighing whether they might be more comfortable living in a different state without a law like SB 264 on the books.

Li said she will likely leave Florida after her daughter goes off to college. Bian said he has hope that the law will be overturned, but if nothing has changed in a year or two, he plans to move back to California.

“I don’t think California will ever have this kind of law.”

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