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President Biden signs COVID-19 hate crimes bill into law

President Joe Biden signs the COVID-19 Hate Crimes

President Joe Biden signs the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in the East Room of the White House on Thursday. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a measure approved by Congress earlier this month, aimed at addressing an uptick in attacks directed at Asian Americans since the onset of the pandemic.

"My message to all of those of you who are hurting is we see you, and the Congress has said, we see you. And we are committed to stop the hatred and the bias," Biden said at a bill signing ceremony in the White House’s East Room.

The measure directs the Department of Justice to expedite the review of possible COVID-19-related hate crimes that have been flagged by local law enforcement agencies, and assigns an official within the department to oversee the effort.

The legislation, sponsored in the U.S. House by Rep. Grace Meng (D- Queens), also calls on the Justice Department to establish an online reporting system for such hate crimes, seeks increased tracking of hate crimes and directs the Department of Health and Human Services to work with the Justice Department to create guidance for local community groups to raise awareness about reporting hate crimes spurred by the pandemic.

Biden, before signing the bill, said "hate can be given no safe harbor in America," and called for Americans not to be dismissive of acts of hate and discrimination as "that’s just what happens."

"Every time we’re silent, every time we let hate flourish, you make a lie of who we are as a nation," Biden said.

The ceremony showcased the White House’s gradual return to normalcy since the CDC relaxed federal mask guidance for vaccinated Americans last week — more than 60 lawmakers and activists were on hand, the majority maskless, and Biden eagerly shook hands with attendees at the end of the ceremony.

Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking at the top of the event, described the new law as an initial step in a long-standing battle to address racism and bigotry in the United States.

"After the president signs this bill today, we will not be done," Harris said. "Here’s the truth. Racism exists in America, xenophobia exists in America, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, it all exists, and so the work to address injustice wherever it exists remains the work ahead."

The measure is one of the rare pieces of legislation to pass Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Senate passed the bill in April by a 94-1 vote, and earlier this month, the House voted 364-62 to pass the bill. All of the opposing votes were cast by Republican lawmakers.

Among those on hand were Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Meng and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who sponsored the legislation in the Senate.

Meng and Hirono introduced the legislation in March in response to an increase in attacks on Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic.

Anti-Asian hate crimes in major cities increased by 169% in the first three months of 2021 compared with the same period last year, according to a recent study released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

The study, which analyzed crime data from major metro areas, found that the number of reported hate crimes against Asians in New York City more than tripled to 42 in the first quarter of the year. Activists have argued the data doesn’t fully depict the extent of recent hate crimes because many victims are afraid to report attacks, or attacks are not immediately classified by responding officers as a hate crime.

"Let us not forget the pain and struggles of the past year and the fear and terror that the Asian American community has been forced to endure, and remember all those who have been impacted by these heinous and racist attacks," Meng said in a statement after the signing ceremony. "I remain hopeful that we will stop Asian hate!"

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