House sends anti-Asian hate bill to Biden’s desk
In a big bipartisan vote, House lawmakers on Tuesday passed legislation aimed at combating the sharp rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans that have occurred since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill now goes to President Biden, who is expected to sign it into law as soon as Thursday, in the middle of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The bill passed in a 364-62 vote, with all no votes coming from Republicans. The Senate last month approved the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act on a 94-1 vote, with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) the lone “no” vote.
“After a year of the Asian American community crying out for help, today Congress is taking historic action to pass long overdue hate crimes legislation and send the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act to President Biden’s desk,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told reporters before the vote.
The broad bipartisan vote demonstrates just how much these “daily tragedies of anti-Asian violence have shocked our nation into action,” Chu said.
“It is a momentous day,” added Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who represents a San Francisco district where multiple anti-Asian hate incidents have occurred, including the death last year of an elderly Thai American man and the stabbing of two Asian American women just this month.
The legislation, authored by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), would create a position at the Justice Department to expedite a review of COVID-19-related hate crimes; provide grants for states to create hotlines for reporting hate crimes and for law enforcement training on how to prevent and identify hate crimes; and direct federal agencies to work with community organizations to help raise awareness about hate crimes during the pandemic.
The legislation makes no mention of Donald Trump, though many Democrats have warned that rhetoric from the former president and his allies, including the terms “China virus” and “kung flu,” have provoked many of the verbal and violent attacks against the Asian American community.
Since the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, there have been more than 6,600 hate incidents against Asian Americans, according to the group Stop AAPI Hate. Nearly two-thirds of those incidents targeted women.
Passage of the bill comes less than two months after a gunman killed eight people in three Asian-owned spas in greater Atlanta; six of the victims were women of Asian descent. And on Wednesday, the House plans to pass a separate resolution condemning the March 16 massacre in Georgia.
Authorities said the 21-year-old man charged in the killings had been a customer of at least two of the spas, though other attacks have been at random. New York police officials have said many of those perpetrating these crimes in the city have a history of mental illness.
Meng, who represents a large Asian American community in Queens, said the legislation will help the federal government better track such hate incidents, including the mental health state of the perpetrators. Other Democrats emphasized that how elected leaders speak about the deadly coronavirus has a direct impact on how members of the Asian American community are treated.
“Leadership at the top level makes a difference,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who has explicitly blamed Trump’s rhetoric for the spike in incidents. “We need better data, but … it’s common sense that if you have a destabilizing leader or destabilizing leaders or big influencers, they can also destabilize those who are vulnerable in terms of their mental stability to act out.”
Some of Trump’s top allies in Congress panned the legislation. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, complained that the bill could infringe on free speech by establishing hotlines where citizens could report anything they find “offensive.” It also creates confusion, he said, by having hate incidents reported to a new state office rather than through normal law enforcement channels.
“The Democrats have attempted to blame President Trump for this rise in violence against Asian Americans, but the facts tell an entirely different story,” Jordan said on the House floor. “This violence by and large is happening in Democrat-controlled cities, many of which, interestingly enough, have defunded their police departments.”
Biden has taken a much different approach than Trump in responding to anti-Asian hate. Just days after being sworn in as president, Biden in January signed a memo denouncing racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans; and ensuring that all government statements and documents do not contribute to discrimination against Asian Americans.
In March, the Biden administration rolled out new funding and initiatives to curb anti-Asian hate, including a cross-agency initiative at the Justice Department to respond to Asian violence. That month, Biden and Vice President Harris also met with Asian American leaders in Georgia after the mass shooting.
And last month, Biden tapped Erika Moritsugu as a senior adviser after complaints from lawmakers that Biden had not named any Asian Americans to Cabinet secretary posts or senior White House roles; Moritsugu will serve as Biden’s top liaison to the Asian-American community.
“President Biden has done more for Asian Americans than I’ve seen in a long time,” Chu said.
His actions to combat Asian hate incidents were a “huge step after a year of being totally ignored by President Trump, who actually doubled down on his usage of the terms ‘China virus’ and ‘Wuhan virus.’”
The Hirono-Meng legislation overcame last-minute opposition from dozens of progressive Asian American and LGBTQ groups who expressed concerns the bill fails to address the root causes of anti-Asian hate, namely inequality. The groups, including 18 Million Rising and the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, want more funding and resources for things like housing, health care and social services rather than law enforcement.
“This legislation allocates no new funding to law enforcement,” Meng said, addressing the concerns. “This legislation does assume that law enforcement is currently underreporting these kinds of incidents, and it makes it easy to ignore hate crimes altogether. That’s why we believe that this response is necessary.”