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U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday signed a bill meant to address a proliferation of assaults and other violent crimes against Asian Americans since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, celebrating a rare moment of overwhelming bipartisanship but warning that Americans must do more to combat hate crimes.

The bill amounts to the first legislative action that Congress has taken to bolster law enforcement’s response to attacks on people of Asian descent during the pandemic. Experts testified before a key House panel in March that the attacks — many targeting women or older people — have increased nearly 150% in the past year, with Americans of Asian descent reporting being spat on, shoved to the ground, beaten and burned by chemicals.

“All of this hate hides in plain sight,” Biden said at the White House before a crowd of nearly 70 lawmakers and activists who had pushed for the bill’s passage. “Too often it is met with silence — silence by the media, silence by our politics and silence by our history.”

More than 6,600 instances of anti-Asian hate have been recorded nationwide in the past year, according to the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate. New York had the largest increase in anti-Asian hate crimes relative to other major cities, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

The law largely strengthens administrative systems intended to identify and crack down on hate crimes.

The measure will establish a position at the Justice Department to speed the agency’s review of hate crimes and expand the channels to report them, in an effort to improve data collection regarding attacks targeting Asian Americans. It will also encourage the creation of state-run hate crimes hotlines, provide grants to law enforcement agencies that train their officers to identify hate crimes and introduce a series of public education campaigns about bias against people of Asian descent.

The law, which was led through Congress by Democratic Sen. Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii and Democratic Rep. Grace Meng of New York, passed 94-1 in the Senate and 364-62 in the House. Many lawmakers joined Biden for the signing ceremony, including Hirono and Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth. White House officials said that Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, was also in attendance, though the president did not call for him to stand behind his desk as he signed the bill.

“We simply haven’t seen this kind of bipartisanship for much too long in Washington,” Biden said.

“My message to all those of you who are hurting is, we see you,” he said. “And the Congress has said, we see you. And we are committed to stopping the hatred and the bias.”

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks, while Vice President Kamala Harris looks on, before signing the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law at the White House in Washington on Thursday. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks, while Vice President Kamala Harris looks on, before signing the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law at the White House in Washington on Thursday. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Vice President Kamala Harris, who is of Indian descent, introduced the president and said that the bill he was signing “brings us one step closer to stopping hate, not just against Asian Americans, but for all Americans.”

But lawmakers still had work to do to combat discrimination and hate, she said.

“Racism exists in America,” Harris said. “Xenophobia exists in America. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, it all exists.”

Meng said on Thursday that she was “truly heartened” by the signing ceremony.

“But 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,” she said. “And remember all those who have been impacted by these heinous and racist attacks.”

Democratic Asian Americans in Congress had confronted the Biden administration this year about what they said was an unacceptable lack of representation at the highest levels of government, culminating in the appointment of a senior official to focus on Asian American priorities. Hirono and Duckworth had pledged to withhold their votes on some nominees until the president engaged more actively with the issue.

Biden told the crowd at the White House that the United States needed a concerted effort to eradicate hate crimes that went beyond legislation.

“Of all the good that the law can do, we have to change our hearts,” he said. “We have to change the hearts of the American people. I mean this from the bottom of my heart. Hate can be given no safe harbor in America.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company
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