By Delia Corridon, Medill, Immigrant Connect   June 2021                                                                             

On May 20, 2021, five months after taking office, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. The law aims to make it easier to report incidents of hate through public engagement and to publish reporting systems in more languages. But the question remains, what will the law do to improve the lives of Asian immigrants and more generally, all people of Asian descent in the United States?

Mabel Menard, the president of the Greater Chicago Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, pointed out that the law doesn’t have concrete implications or punishments to prevent hate crimes. However, the national recognition and enactment into law makes a difference, Menard said. Raising awareness on a national scale can lead to more media coverage and more reporting of anti-Asian hate incidents in the U.S., Menard reasoned.

Juo-Hsi “Sylvia” Peng, the immigrant community navigator at the Asian American Federation, agreed that the law’s symbolism is a positive step. Social change is a combination of structural markers, directing money to communities, and shifting priorities, Peng said. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is a structural marker.

Biden’s stance on the issue of anti-Asian hate is a significant shift from his predecessor. Throughout 2020, then-President Trump used inflammatory rhetoric, such as the “kung flu” and the “Chinese virus,” to describe the coronavirus. There is a clear correlation between Trump’s rhetoric at the beginning of the pandemic and the anti-Asian hate present in the United States now, Peng said. Trump’s rhetoric was effective because of the historical racialization of people of Asian descent as the “perpetual foreigner” Peng said.

“The fact that a leader was using that language legitimizes a lot of the sentiments and mentality that people have,” Menard said. Seeing anti-Asian rhetoric used by a national leader allowed people to express the racist and prejudiced feelings they already had.

However, it’s too early to tell if there’s been tangible change to thwart anti-Asian hate since Biden took office, Peng said. Even though Trump’s incendiary Twitter platform was revoked in January, the damage was already done, Peng said.

Asian communities in the United States felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic months before the virus became widespread in the United States. In January of 2020, as the coronavirus edged its way into the mainstream media, there was an abrupt decrease of business in Asian districts in New York City, Peng said. Asian-owned businesses there were feeling the effects of COVID-19 a couple months before the city-wide shutdown in March.

As business dwindled in these districts, anti-Asian hate incidents also increased. From boycotting and vandalism to people being harassed on the street, there was a rise in hate incidents beginning in January, Peng said.

There is a lot of fear among Asian immigrant communities especially, Peng said. Almost everyone has a story about being the target of anti-Asian hate, Peng said. Many people are coming to terms with the concern that it might not improve for a while.

In addition to fearing hatred, immigrants are worried about their livelihoods in general. Peng works with five AAF member organizations across New York City. All of them saw unemployment rise in their communities. Many immigrants work in the service industry and were let go when the city shut down in March 2020. Many Asian immigrants also face a language barrier and issues relating to their immigration status.

As a result of high unemployment, many Asian immigrants have huge backlogs of unpaid rent accruing. While there is a moratorium on evictions in New York City until Aug. 31, many people will not be able to pay the backlog of rent once the moratorium is lifted. Many immigrants don’t have documents and are therefore excluded from federal benefits and unemployment pay. While the New York City government directed funds to compensate these excluded workers in April 2021, the demand for the benefits is extremely high.

What else can the President do to help Asian Americans at this time?

Governments at the city, state, and national level need to invest in Asian communities, Peng said. There are a lot of useful, public resources for the various needs of immigrants. However, because the Asian populations are so diverse, there are specialized language needs. It is the community-based organizations that bridge the immigrants and communities to these existing resources, Peng said.

Education is another channel that can be used to address prejudice of all kinds. For example, the Illinois House of Representatives recently passed a bill which will mandate that schools teach Asian American history to students. If the bill passes the state senate, Illinois will be the first state to mandate this curriculum, Menard said. It is also important to encourage dialogue between minority groups, Menard added. Throughout history, minority groups have been scapegoated for a variety of reasons. Right now, Menard said, the scapegoat group is Chinese people and, by proxy, all people of Asian descent.

For many people in China, the United States is viewed as a land of opportunity. Immigrating to the United States is a chance to obtain scholarships, have increased job opportunities, work on research, attend university, and have a chance to work hard to achieve the American Dream, Menard said. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent rise in anti-Asian hate incidents has made many Chinese citizens who hoped to immigrate to the U.S. question if they will be welcome.