By Jonathan Nicholson
The Senate on Thursday passed a bill meant to improve the tracking of federal hate crimes in the wake of a series of high-profile attacks against Asian Americans related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The vote, 94 to 1, came after a few days of haggling between Democrats and Republican over amendments and clears the way for action by the House, where a bill has yet to be brought up.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Hawaii Democrat Sen. Mazie Hirono, would require the Department of Justice to quickly designate a person to track and speed up the review of federal hate-crime reports and their prosecution. It would also allow the attorney general to give grants to state and local law enforcement for better tracking of such crimes.
“This legislation sends a dual message to our Asian-American community: We will not tolerate violence and bigotry against you. And to those who perpetrate the violence and bigotry, we’re going to pursue you to the full extent of the law,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, at a press conference after the bill’s passage.
The bill’s fate had been in some doubt earlier in the week as Democrats and Republicans haggled behind the scenes on which amendments would be allowed for consideration. But its path to the final vote, where only Missouri Republican Josh Hawley voted against it, may have been smoothed by the elimination of language in the bill defining “COVID-19 hate crime.”
In the original bill, “COVID-19 hate crimes” were defined as violent crimes motivated by “the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, age, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability of any person; and the actual or perceived relationship to the spread of COVID–19 of any person because of the characteristic,” a definition that appeared likely to include recent high-profile attacks against Asians.
The bill as it passed eliminated that language and only referenced a pre-existing definition of hate crimes in federal law. The language for expanding hate crimes reporting and grants to boost reporting came from a separate bill introduced in early April.
Asked if the legislation went far enough, Schumer said, “I believe this will greatly increase prosecution against against those who have perpetrated anti-Asian violence” because of the new Justice Department designee.
The bill will next go to the House, where its counterpart, sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng, a New York Democrat, has yet to see a floor vote. Meng in a statement said she expected her bill to be brought up in May, during Asian-American Heritage Month.
“We’ve all heard the sickening stories and seen the horrifying videos of Asian Americans being beaten, slashed and spat on. Today, the Senate said ‘enough is enough,’ and underscored loud and clear that there is no place for hate anywhere in our society,” she said.