TALLAHASSEE — A priority bill of Gov. Ron DeSantis was called discriminatory by dozens of Chinese Americans on Wednesday, with some drawing comparisons to a Nazi-era law requiring Jews to register their property with the state.
HB 1355 and its companion SB 264 would restrict ownership of land and property by those from seven “countries of concern” — including China, Cuba, Venezuela and Russia — a response to reports of a Chinese company buying farmland next to a North Dakota Air Force base last year.
Lawmakers stressed the legislation is not meant to affect anyone living in Florida. The bills would prohibit anyone living in those countries from acquiring land or buildings in Florida if they’re not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
Foreigners from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria would be prohibited from buying property within 20 miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure, such as a seaport or wastewater treatment plant. Foreigners from those countries would not be allowed to buy agricultural land anywhere in the state.
Only foreigners from China would be prohibited from owning any property statewide, including homes.
Current owners would have to register their ownership with the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity.
The legislation had sailed through the House and Senate with unanimous bipartisan support. The Senate passed it off the floor unanimously last week. One of the sponsors of HB 1355 is a Democrat and numerous Democratic lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors.
That bipartisan support ended Wednesday after more than 100 Chinese Americans, permanent residents, students, professors and others packed a House committee room and told lawmakers the bill was discriminatory. Several recounted stories of racial discrimination.
“I’m trying to protect my family from unintended consequences that come with this bill,” Baoliang Pan of Orlando told lawmakers. “Many times during COVID, my wife and family were verbally assaulted by people shouting racial slurs like ‘Chinese virus. Go back to China.’”
Several focused on the requirement to register their ownership with the state, comparing it to the 1938 law imposed by Nazi Germany requiring Jews to register their property with the government.
“Are we really in 2023? Or are we in 1935?” said Daniel Ettedgui, a French immigrant who runs a business that helps foreigners buy property in the United States.
Other speakers warned that the legislation would have other effects. Parents of Chinese students often buy a condo or home for their child studying in the U.S., which would be prohibited if the parents are living in China.
Lobbyist Slater Bayliss told lawmakers it would prohibit EB-5 investments, a federal program that allows foreigners to apply for green cards if they invest in commercial ventures in the U.S.
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In Suwannee County, for example, a high-tech sawmill touted by Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 was partly financed by Chinese EB-5 investors.
“By a broad reading of this bill, those investments would no longer be allowed in Florida,” Bayliss told lawmakers.
The bill sponsors on Wednesday said the public commenters were victims of “misinformation,” since the bill doesn’t apply to anyone who lives in Florida.
“The only people who this bill discriminates against is the Communist Party of China,” Rep. David Borrero, R-Sweetwater, told lawmakers. “The only people who have worried about not being able to buy land here? Those who are not living here.”
Rep. Katherine Waldron, D-Wellington, the other bill sponsor, agreed, although she said the bill will likely be amended to address the issue with Chinese students.
“I think everybody in that room is probably not included in this bill,” Waldron said after the committee. “We’re not trying to cause anybody harm who lives here.”
Instead, the intent is to make the state safer, she said, citing money laundering by foreigners buying expensive properties in Florida and criminal charges filed against two men this week accused of running an unauthorized Chinese police outpost in New York City.
Sunny Duann, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay, told the Times/Herald that Chinese Americans in Florida started organizing against the bills after seeing them pass the Senate last week.
“That singles out Chinese people, and that’s just not fair,” she said.
DeSantis said in January that he wanted lawmakers to prevent Chinese companies and nationals from buying Florida real estate. His office has made other efforts to stamp out Chinese influence, including banning local governments from using Chinese-made drones.
The extraordinary response on Wednesday prompted the committee chairperson, Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, to say that lawmakers need to communicate better with the public.
“If this bill is not affecting them, we (have) got a lot of work to inform them on that,” McClure said. “It’s tough when you have this many people come with this many concerns.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to specify that some of the restrictions on ownership apply to people from “countries of concern.”
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