President Joe Biden on Thursday signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act that passed through Congress in an increasingly rare show of bipartisanship, hailing the effort a “significant break” in a gridlocked Washington.
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and person of Asian descent to hold the office, opened the signing ceremony by thanking lawmakers present for their work including Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., who introduced the bill. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican, also received a nod from Biden for showing up to the ceremony which was dominated by Democrats. Without masks and social distancing, it was largest-scale event at the White House since the Biden administration began.
“To the members of our United States Congress on both sides of the aisle who helped pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, thank you,” Harris said first to applause. “Because of you, history will remember this day and this moment when our nation took action to combat hate.”
Biden said he hopes the signing ceremony, which comes during Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, Heritage Month, marks the end “first significant break” in a hyper-partisan era and sends this message to the Asian American community: “We see you.”
“For centuries, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, diverse and vibrant communities have helped build this nation only to be often stepped over, forgotten, or ignored,” he said. “My message to all of those 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.”
The president also called the history of mistreatment against the AAPI community in the U.S. “un-American.”
“Silence is complicity. And we cannot be complicit. We have to speak out. We have to act. That’s what you’ve done. And I can’t thank you enough,” Biden said. “I’m proud today.”
In what was one of the first event’s since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance for those vaccinated from COVID-19, several Democratic lawmakers gathered inside the East Room without masks and social distancing for the bill signing. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was seen closely chatting before the ceremony with Attorney General Merrick Garland, who sat front row for the remarks alongside Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff.
Asked how it felt to be inside the White House without a mask, Pelosi told one reporter, “Fabulous.”
It specifically directs the Justice Department to designate a point person to assist with expedited review of COVID-19 hate crimes, provide guidance for state and local law enforcement agencies to establish online reporting of hate crimes in multiple languages, expand “linguistically appropriate” public education campaigns and issue guidance on best practices to curb racially discriminatory language in describing the pandemic.
The House of Representatives on Tuesday gave final passage to the bill with a 364-62 vote after the Senate passed the bill last month, 94-1. All votes in opposition were from Republican members, with Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who challenged the results of the 2020 election after the Capitol attack, standing out as the lone senator to vote against it.
Biden pledged to swiftly sign the legislation, tweeting Thursday morning that “Hate has no place in America.”
More than 6,600 hate incidents against the AAPI community have been reported in the year since the pandemic began, according to a report this month from Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition addressing anti-Asian racism. Another recent report from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, on hate crimes against Asian Americans in major U.S. cities found a 164% increase in reported crime in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020, before the pandemic surged.
Harris said in her remarks Thursday that the violence is nothing new.
“In my life, my lived experience, I have seen how hate can pervade our communities,” Harris said. “I have seen how hate can impede our progress and I have seen how people uniting against hate can strengthen our country.”
“This bill brings us one step closer to stopping hate, not only for Asian Americans, but for all Americans,” she added.
Democrats have argued the rise in crimes against Asian Americans is linked to former President Donald Trump’s branding of COVID-19 as the “China virus,” among other names.
While some advocates say the bill takes relatively modest steps to equip law enforcement and communities to better deal with the rise in violence against the AAPI community, House Democrats argued Tuesday the legislation will help prevent attacks by facilitating better reporting of the incidents.
The legislation was introduced after the shooting of eight people, including six Asian women, at several spas in the Atlanta area in March. Those women are memorialized in the bill’s text. The mass shooting followed a general rise in anti-Asian sentiments across the country.
ABC News’ Sarah Kolinovsky, Karen Travers and Allison Pecorin contributed to this report.