Bill that would bar ‘foreign principals’ from China from buying land in Florida approved

Proposal was fiercely opposed by Chinese-Americans as discriminatory

By: - May 5, 2023 12:28 pm

A no trespassing sign is posted in front of a Pacific Gas and Electric electrical substation on Jan. 26, 2022 in Petaluma, Calif. (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Legislation restricting any “foreign principal” from China and six other “foreign countries of concern” from purchasing property within 10 miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure has been approved by both chambers of the Florida Legislature and will go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has indicated that he will sign it.

The bill (SB 624) lists seven countries: China, Russia, Iran, Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria — but extensive language in the bill targets people from “the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Community Party, or any official member of the People’s Republic of China or the Chinese Community Party.”

That’s raised concerns within the Chinese-American community in Florida and across the country who claim it could lead to discrimination and even hate crimes against them.

The bill says that at the time of purchase, a buyer of agricultural land or an interest in such land must provide an affidavit signed under penalty of perjury that the buyer is not a foreign principal, with some exceptions. A foreign principal who is a natural person may purchase residential property that is up to two acres in size if the parcel is not within five miles of any military installation in the state, and the buyer holds a valid U.S. visa or other documents confirming that they have been granted asylum in the U.S.

Despite some sharp criticism in the House from a few Democrats, the measure received bipartisan support from both chambers of the Legislature Thursday — getting a 95-17 vote in the House and 31-8 vote in the Senate.

During a committee hearing last month, approximately 100 Chinese-Americans testified against the bill, with many expressing fears about what could result if it passed. Protests were held last weekend against the legislation in Gainesville, Miami, Tampa, and other cities, according to the Independent Florida Alligator.

However, Palm Beach County Democrat Katherine Waldron, co-sponsoring the bill with Miami-Dade Republican David Borrero, said on the House floor on Wednesday that most of those who spoke weren’t Florida citizens.

“I was later told that virtually all of them were bused in from Texas by the AALC [Asian-American Leadership Conference],” she said. “Along the way, they were lectured by the organizer of this trip that this bill would force them out of their houses or, worse, allow us to deport them. None of which is true.”

‘A lie’

Orlando attorney Echo Meisheng King disputes the allegation.

“That’s a lie,” she told the Phoenix in a brief phone conversation. “Around 40 of us rented a bus and traveled from Orlando to Tallahassee,” she added in an email message.

The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and several Florida chapters of the group released a statement last month complaining the proposal would “broadly prohibit certain individuals and entities from purchasing real estate in Florida on the basis of national origin.”

Before the vote on final passage Thursday night, Broward County Democrat Robin Bartleman — an original co-sponsor of the bill — said she continued to harbor “deep concerns” about some of the language in the bill, which she said were “not entirely consistent with the good intent of the bill.”

“The vague and inconsistent language risks harming people who were never the intended targets of this legislation,” she said.

Bartleman and House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell had been attempting to persuade the bill sponsors to change the language to more reflect a similar proposal recently passed by the Texas Senate. That bill restricts purchases of agricultural land, timberland, and oil and gas rights by entities associated with any country that “poses a risk to the national security of the United States.”

An earlier iteration sought an outright ban on land sales to dual citizens and businesses associated with China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, according to the Texas Tribune.

States around the country have been pushing bills to limit land purchases by Chinese citizens or entities as relations between the two superpowers have soured in recent years. At least 11 state legislatures this spring have been contemplating similar legislation.

DeSantis on board

Gov. DeSantis made it clear earlier Thursday that he wanted a bill stronger than what other states have passed or are considering in this area.

“I think ours is the most ambitious bill in the country, because we’re saying no land grabs of farmland but also no land grabs near military bases or critical infrastructure,” DeSantis said in Panama City on Thursday. “Why would we want the Chinese Communist Party and its affiliates to be purchasing this land in the state of Florida? We don’t want it to happen so we’re standing up and doing something about it.”

There have also been federal efforts to address foreign countries purchases of U.S. agriculture.

Two years ago, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz introduced the Protecting Military Installations and Ranges act of 2021, which would restrict any effort by Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea to buy U.S. land within 100 miles of a U.S. military installation.

In January, Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds introduced the Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security (PASS) Act, which would prevent China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea from investing in, purchasing, leasing, or otherwise acquiring U.S. farmland.

On the House floor on Wednesday, Driskell expressed concern that the bill “commits national-origin discrimination.” She said she was troubled that the bill omits any definition of what it means to be a member of the People’s Republic of China.

“I asked [the bill sponsor] whether it was possible to be a legal permanent resident of these United States and also be a member of the Republic of China, and the answer was ‘yes,'” she said. “That lets you know automatically that there’s discrimination in this bill on national origin.”

‘Unintended consequences’

Hillsborough County Republican Danny Alvarez, a U.S. Army veteran, said that the legislation was needed for U.S. national security purposes.

“Today we talk about unintended consequences,” said Alvarez. “What consequence will there be, when we are under the bootheel of the Communist Party of China?”

“We have been actively engaged against the Chinese army for over 25 years,” he continued. “Whether you know it, or you want to accept it, or whether you face the reality of what we see today.”

Pinellas County Republican Kim Berfield said she has seen reports that Chinese entities now own over 200,000 acres of land within the U.S.

“Chinese investments in American agriculture sectors have grown tenfold in the last 10 years,” she said. “Our resources are being threatened. And we have a responsibility to protect them.”

In making his close on Thursday night, Borrero argued the bill was only about protecting the national-security interests of Floridians and transcends political partisanship.

“Can you imagine where there would be so many Floridians who would be tenants of the CCP?” he asked. “That’s a scary reality that your landlord is the CCP. We can’t allow that to happen in the state of Florida. Not in the free state of Florida.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.