Looking at Florida’s controversial alien land law

Q. Our international real estate business specializes in residential condominiums. Some prospective buyers from Japan have questioned whether they are allowed to own property here. They said they were told Florida law prohibits real property ownership by persons of Asian descent. Is this really true?

Shocked Sellers

Incredible, but technically true. Florida has the dubious distinction of being the only remaining state that hasn’t repealed its Alien Land Law. The law targeted Asian immigrants to prevent them from buying farm land, and using their agricultural skills and labor to compete with American farmers.

That being said, the law was never legislatively implemented or enforced.

Ownership of Florida real estate by Asians or any other ethnic group is not restricted. Most experts agree courts would declare it unconstitutional if ever used. But its discriminatory wording remains in Article 1 of the Florida Constitution:

“The ownership, inheritance, disposition and possession of real property by aliens ineligible to citizenship (emphasis added) may be regulated or prohibited by law.”

The historical origins of this wording provides important educational lessons how such laws are enacted and repealed based on the changing moods of our society.

The legal definition of immigrant aliens granted citizenship under the original U.S. Immigration and Naturalization laws was limited to “free white persons and persons of African descent.” All others (including persons of Asian descent) were classified as aliens ineligible to citizenship.

Opposition to Asian immigrant foreign labor resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring Chinese immigration. Opposition was also strong for Japanese agricultural workers who immigrated in large numbers around the turn of the century. Local farmers viewed Asian immigrant foreign labor as unfair competition.

California’s 1913 Alien Land Law was the first of such laws passed by 13 states.

Florida amended its constitution in 1926 to include its version quoted above, to deter Asian farmers, excluded from Western states, from re-settling.

By the post World War II era, Congress expanded citizenship eligibility to all ethnic groups and removed racial obstacles. Legislatures and courts repealed the offensive Alien Land Laws on constitutional grounds, as violating 14th amendment nondiscrimination guarantees of equal protection.

Florida legislators agreed in 2007 to put a constitutional amendment to finally remove the offensive Alien Land Law language on the 2008 election year ballot . But Amendment 1 surprisingly failed. Sponsors said the 52 percent of “no” voters were confused, and incorrectly assumed that removal of the aliens ineligible to citizenship wording encouraged illegal immigration. Repeal efforts will probably continue and may eventually succeed.

Disclaimer: This column is not intended to be a solicitation of legal business or the furnishing of self-help legal advice. Laws vary from state to state. Readers are strongly urged to consult independent and qualified legal professionals before making any business decisions. The views expressed are those of the writer and not of The Miami Herald.