Opinion: Florida revives an 1850s strategy to exclude Chinese immigrants

An overhead view of a rotunda with an inscription that includes 'welcome'
The Florida Capitol rotunda says “welcome,” but lawmakers have a different message for Chinese Americans.
(Phil Sears / Associated Press)

While our country celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida legislature are busy resurrecting a long-dead form of anti-Asian discrimination.

Under the guise of national security, Florida lawmakers seem poised to crush Chinese immigrants’ dreams of homeownership. In April, the Florida Senate unanimously passed SB 264, and on Wednesday the Florida House rushed to pass its twin, HB 1355, purportedly to prohibit the Chinese government from buying real estate in Florida. This seems a reasonable enough goal. But by targeting “any member of the People’s Republic of China,” the bill could also wreak havoc on the lives of ordinary people. DeSantis has signaled he will sign the legislation.

According to the Asian Pacific American Bar Assn., the bill’s “overly broad and vague” language could deny “anyone holding Chinese citizenship” the ability to buy real estate in Florida, “even if they are also U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents of the United States.” On Wednesday, the House passed an amendment that offers a one-property exception for some U.S. visa holders.


All Florida buyers would be required to provide affidavits attesting they are not in the prohibited class this bill creates. No doubt this universal requirement will encourage real estate agents, sellers and the public to view Asian Americans with suspicion. The legislation would also force Chinese passport holders who already own a house in Florida to complete a special registration with the government.

Protesters have denounced the bill as discriminatory, likening it to Nazi-era laws requiring Jews to register their property with the German state. But in fact, we need not reach across the Atlantic for antecedents. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Chinese homeownership has been under attack in the United States.

Whether or not they know it, Florida lawmakers are proposing to revive anti-Chinese laws from long ago. In 1859, for example, the Oregon Constitution declared that “no Chinaman” arriving after that year “shall ever hold any real estate or mining claim.” In 1879, Nevada land laws targeted nonresident “subjects of the Chinese empire” and, in 1908, Idaho barred “Chinese” and “Mongolians” from owning land or real property.

Some alien-land laws were more subtle in their intent, especially at the dawn of the 20th century. Because Asian immigrants were racially barred from naturalization until 1943, states could prohibit Asian homeownership by targeting unnaturalized foreigners. Gabriel J. Chin, professor of law at UC Davis, has found that 15 states targeted Asian immigrants in this roundabout way. Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming all barred people ineligible for naturalization from owning land.

The impetus behind these earlier alien-land laws bears strong resemblance to the motivations driving the Florida bill today. The American public fretted that Asians – who were disparaged as too “industrious” and “inassimilable” – would outcompete white workers and fail to become loyal Americans. To quiet these racial fears, state lawmakers passed discriminatory legislation to dissuade Asian immigrants from making their homes in the United States.

These old alien-land laws held profound implications for the Asian community, as does the new bill. They encouraged discrimination in the real estate market, drove segregation of Asian communities, and made it more difficult for Asian immigrants to rise out of poverty. And by labeling Asians as unwanted, lawmakers fueled anti-Asian prejudice more broadly.


The Asian American community fought previous alien-land laws, as they are fighting now. For decades, Chinese community leaders denounced the laws as discriminatory, but it was not until 1948 that Japanese plaintiffs successfully challenged California’s alien laws. In Oyama vs. California, the California Supreme Court acknowledged that the alien-land laws discriminated against Asian immigrants. But more important, at least in the eyes of the court, the laws also harmed their American-born, U.S. citizen children.

It is a sad truth that our Asian Pacific American heritage is bound up in this history of discrimination. Our communities in the U.S. formed amid a litany of local, state and federal laws that targeted Asian immigrants.

But community action is also part of our heritage and a critical part of our present. In January, the Chinese American community rallied against an anti-Chinese land bill in Texas, forcing the state legislature to significantly narrow the law. And in Florida, the fight is not over.

Beth Lew-Williams is an associate professor of history at Princeton and the author of “The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America.”