Senate votes to open debate on COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act amid rise in anti-Asian violence in US

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Senate voted 92 to 6 to move forward and discuss a bill aimed at COVID-19 hate crimes, specifically those targeting Asian communities in the U.S.

Though timely, the COVID-19 Hate Crime Act is also a relatively modest measure that supporters see as a first step in a federal response to the rise in hate crimes targeting Asian communities. 

It would assign a point person within the Justice Department to expedite the review of COVID-19-related hate crimes and provide support for local law enforcement to respond to such incidents. The department would also work to limit discriminatory language used to describe the pandemic.

The bill is the most substantive congressional response to what has been an alarming rise in racist sentiment against people of Asian descent in the U.S., fueled in part by derogatory language about the coronavirus’ origins. Donald Trump, while president, repeated derisive nicknames for the virus, linking COVID-19 to China.

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"For more than a year, the Asian American community has been fighting two crises — the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-Asian hate," Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., a co-author of the bill, said Tuesday at the Capitol.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said as the "proud husband of an Asian American woman, I think this discrimination against Asian Americans is a real problem."

Last month, A 65-year-old Asian woman was kicked in the stomach and repeatedly stomped on as building workers in Hell's Kitchen stood by, said the NYPD, according to FOX 5. That same day, a video appeared on social media showing a suspect relentlessly punching an Asian man in the head on a subway train. The beating continued even when the victim curled up into a fetal position. With each blow to the head, the victim's body could be seen convulsing.

On March 16, a gunman opened fire at three Atlanta-area massage businesses. Eight people were killed. Six of them were Asian women. Police have charged a 21-year-old man in the slayings.

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Thousands of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders turned to social media to air their anger, sadness, fear and hopelessness. The hashtag #StopAsianHate was a top trending topic on Twitter hours after the shootings.

The following day, a 75-year old Asian woman was attacked but was able to fight off the man who struck her in San Francisco.

In late March, President Joe Biden announced broad actions by the White House to address the rise in anti-Asian violence in the U.S. and bias against Asian communities. 

The president said he will reinstate the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, with an emphasis on anti-Asian bias and violence. Biden will also expand the initiative to work with federal agencies to combat anti-Asian bias and violence.

Biden previously called on Congress to "swiftly pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act" days after the Georgia shootings.

"I urge Congress to swiftly pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which would expedite the federal government’s response to the rise of hate crimes exacerbated during the pandemic, support state and local governments to improve hate crimes reporting, and ensure that hate crimes information is more accessible to Asian American communities," he said.

During his first week in office, Biden signed a presidential memorandum to condemn racism, xenophobia and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S.

The Associated Press and Stephanie Weaver contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.