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Joe Biden is poised to sign legislation aimed at curtailing a striking rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, after Congress approved the bill in a bipartisan denunciation of brutal attacks that have proliferated during the pandemic.
The bill, which the House passed on Tuesday in a 364-62 vote, will expedite the review of hate crimes at the justice department and make grants available to help local law enforcement agencies improve their investigation, identification and reporting of incidents driven by bias, which often go underreported. It previously passed the Senate, and Biden has said he will give it his signature..
“Asian Americans have been screaming out for help, and the House and Senate and President Biden have clearly heard our pleas,” said Grace Meng, a Democratic congresswoman who helped lead efforts to pass the bill in the House.
To many Asian Americans, the pandemic has invigorated deep-seated biases. Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the virus, which emerged in Wuhan, China, as the “China virus” or the “Kung flu.” And as cases of the illness began to rise in the US, so too did the attacks, with thousands of violent incidents reported in the past year.
Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat of California, said it’s painful for many to “open up the newspaper every day and see that yet another Asian American has been assaulted, attacked and even killed”.
In February, an 84-year-old man died after he was pushed to the ground near his home in San Francisco. A young family was injured in a Texas grocery store attack last year. And in Georgia, six Asian women were killed in March during a series of shootings targeting workers at massage parlors. Prosecutors are seeking hate crimes charges. The women who were killed are mentioned in the text of the bill.
“You start to think, ‘Well, will I be next?”’ Chu said.
Yet to some activists, including organizations representing gay and transgender Asian Americans, the legislation is misguided. More than 100 groups have signed on to a statement opposing the bill for relying too heavily on law enforcement while providing too little funding to address the underlying issues driving a rise in hate crimes.
“We have had hate crimes laws since 1968, it’s been expanded over and over again, and this new legislation is more of the same,” said Jason Wu, who is co-chair of GAPIMNY-Empowering Queer & Trans Asian Pacific Islanders. “These issues are about bias, but also rooted in inequality, and lack of investment and resources for our communities. Not a shortage of police and jails.”
The group Stop AAPI Hate said the bill was step but lamented that it centers a law enforcement approach over community-led reform.
“Because the act centers criminal law enforcement agencies in its solutions, it will not address the overwhelming majority of incidents reported to our site which are not hate crimes, but serious hate incidents,” the group said in a statement.
The bill also represented a rare moment of bipartisanship in a Congress that has struggled to overcome partisan gridlock, while underscoring an evolution in Republican thought on hate crimes legislation. Many conservatives have historically dismissed hate crimes laws, arguing they create special protected classes so that victims of similar crimes are treated differently.
“I’m glad Congress is coming together in a bipartisan way,” said congresswoman Young Kim, a California Republican who is Korean American. “Let’s also recognize that we cannot legislate hate out of our people’s hearts and minds.”