Chinese students, professor challenge state law

by | Mar 26, 2024

Two graduate students and a professor have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Florida law that restricts employment at public universities for individuals from China and six other countries, arguing it violates federal immigration laws and constitutional rights.

Two graduate students and a professor on Monday challenged the constitutionality of a 2023 state law that restricts employment of people from China and six other nations at Florida public universities and colleges.

Attorneys for Florida International University doctoral students Zhipeng Yin and Zhen Guo and University of Florida professor Zhengfei Guan — all of whom are from China — filed a lawsuit in federal court in Miami. The challenge alleges, in part, that the law is unconstitutional because it is trumped by federal immigration laws.

The lawsuit said that under the measure (SB 846), people “who are not United States citizens or legal permanent residents, and whose domicile is in China or one of six other specified foreign countries, are presumptively prohibited from any academic employment in Florida public universities and colleges.”

“This is so even when these individuals have already satisfied all federal immigration law requirements — including national security screenings, the primary interest Florida purports to protect through SB 846,” the lawsuit said. “Thus, the federal government has already extended them employment rights for academic purposes anywhere in the United States, including Florida.”

The law was part of a package of changes that the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved last year targeting China. DeSantis said in May 2023 that the package was part of a “commitment to crack down on Communist China.”

“Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat — the Chinese Communist Party,” DeSantis said as he signed the measures.

Monday’s lawsuit came after months of legal battling about another part of the package that placed restrictions on people from China buying land in Florida. A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that the land measure likely is trumped by federal law and blocked its enforcement against two plaintiffs. The appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments in April.

The education law deals with trying to prevent involvement in the higher-education system by China and six other designated countries of “concern.” Those countries are Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.

The lawsuit focuses on people from China and deals with one aspect of the law that it says restricts hiring graduate students. The law prevents universities and colleges from employing people who are “domiciled” in China, unless the people go through a process to get approval from the state university system’s Board of Governors or the State Board of Education, which oversees colleges, according to the lawsuit.

The two Florida International University doctoral students have what are known as federal F-1 student visas and received offers to work as graduate teaching assistants. But Florida International later deferred the offers because of the new restrictions, the lawsuit said.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit said the restrictions have “severely and adversely affected” Guan’s ability “to recruit and hire the best postdoctoral candidates who have applied to work with him and assist in his research” at the University of Florida. It said Guan is a tenured associate professor who conducts citrus research and is a legal permanent resident of the U.S.

In addition to the issue of whether federal immigration laws trump the state law under the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, the challenge also alleges that the restrictions violate equal-protection and due process rights.

The defendants in the case are Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., state university chancellor Ray Rodrigues, the university system Board of Governors and the State Board of Education. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the ACLU Foundation of Florida, the Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance and the international law firm Perkins Coie.


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