U.S. Senate passes anti-Asian hate-crimes bill motivated by Atlanta spa shootings

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved hate-crimes legislation aimed at reducing violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and motivated, in part, by the Atlanta spa shootings that killed six women of Asian descent.

Thursday’s vote was the result of bipartisan negotiations that produced a deal Wednesday night and ensured the bill would have wide support. The legislation, titled the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, was the first big test this congressional session of whether a priority of the new Democratic majority would be stifled by the 60-vote threshold to pass bills in the Senate.

It was approved 94-1, with U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, casting the sole dissenting vote. It now goes to the House, where the Democratic majority is expected to easily pass the legislation and send it to President Joe Biden, who has already expressed his support for the measure.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock became one of the main champions of the legislation in the days after the deadly mass shooting. Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; and Paul Andre Michels, 54, were killed at a spa in Cherokee County. Yong Ae Yue, 63; Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51 were at two Atlanta spas that were targeted soon after.

“The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is an important step forward in the federal government’s efforts to help protect members of the AAPI community at home in Georgia and nationwide, and I’m extremely proud to have worked with my Senate colleagues to pass this critical bill and ensure that it honors the lives lost in the horrific March 16 shooting in Atlanta that spurred this necessary and urgent call to action,” Warnock said after the vote. “When we don’t stand up against anti-Asian hate, we threaten the safety of countless Georgians and Americans.”

The measure, which carries the bill number S. 937, would create a point person at the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure that hate crimes reported during the pandemic are investigated and to come up with guidance that can be shared with state and local law enforcement agencies on how to establish new ways for such crimes to be reported.

The bill also would encourage federal agencies to ensure that racially discriminatory language is not used to describe the COVID-19 pandemic. And it would incorporate language from a separate measure, known as the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, to promote better collection of hate-crimes data and provide resources for victims.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the legislation would combat violence against people of Asian descent, which advocates say has increased during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This long overdue bill sends two messages,” the New York Democrat said prior to the vote. “To our Asian American friends: We will not tolerate bigotry against you. And to those perpetrating anti-Asian bigotry: We will pursue you to the fullest extent of the law.”

Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff noted that the names of those killed in the spa shootings are included in the bill’s language, a provision Warnock fought for. That, Ossoff said, will help ensure that what happened last month is never forgotten.

“It’s important that the names of those massacred be spoken by the United States Senate, and that’s the historical record,” Ossoff said. “Honor them and enshrine their names as victims of that heinous attack.”

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