Protestors hold signs at the End The Violence Towards Asians rally in New York City.

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Published — February 26, 2021

Merrick Garland promises to prosecute hate crimes against Asian Americans. Here’s why that matters.

Protestors hold signs at the End The Violence Towards Asians rally in Washington Square Park on Feb. 20 in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)


Senators grilled Judge Merrick Garland this week about white supremacy and domestic extremism during his confirmation hearing for the role of U.S. Attorney General. One brief exchange, in particular, was revealing.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) described a recent spike in anti-Asian violence as “extraordinarily alarming.” Then he asked Garland to commit to prosecuting hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

“Hate crimes tear at the fabric of our society,” Garland responded. “The role of the [Justice Department’s] Civil Rights Division is to prosecute those cases vigorously, and I can assure you that it will if I am confirmed.”

Garland’s promise to enforce existing hate crime laws highlights the Trump administration’s inaction in response to the surge of attacks against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the Biden administration, while acknowledging the problem, has taken steps that are largely symbolic. 

Asians have reported being harassed, threatened and even injured by people falsely blaming them for the spread of COVID-19, which was first detected in China. Then-President Donald Trump inflamed the racist backlash by referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus.” 

Some incidents targeting elderly people were especially violent.

In late January, video footage showed someone shoving an 84-year-old Thai man, Vicha Ratanapakdee, in San Francisco. He died from the injuries. Days later, a person knocked down a 91-year-old man in Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood. It’s unclear if those attacks were racially motivated, but New York City police are investigating an assault on an Asian woman in Queens as a potential hate crime.

Asian Americans have been reporting similar incidents since the virus began to spread through the United States last year.

In April, Public Integrity found that federal agencies were doing practically nothing to address the rising dangers Asian Americans face. Neither the Justice Department nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had announced efforts. Both agencies were quick to act in similar situations: the CDC during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak and the Justice Department after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The hostility toward East Asians during the 2003 SARS outbreak was so concerning that the CDC launched a 14-member community outreach team in response — in the same week the agency reported the first five confirmed cases of SARS in the U.S.

Within a month, the outreach team had talked to key leaders in the Asian American community, monitored Asian-language newspapers and websites, conducted community visits and led panel discussions. The team ultimately met with about 500 Asian Americans in seven cities.

The CDC has not announced a similar plan related to COVID-19 and did not respond to multiple requests by Public Integrity in April to explain if it was working on any. The agency did not respond to another request this week.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks set off a wave of hate incidents against Arabs and South Asians. The Justice Department — the country’s top law enforcement agency — organized an outreach program to the affected communities. Within a few months of the attacks, Justice Department officials had attended more than 100 meetings and events with leaders from the Arab, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian communities. The agency also coordinated civil rights enforcement to prosecute hate crimes and discrimination cases.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department referred Public Integrity in April to an op-ed published in The Washington Examiner by the head of the civil rights division, who said the agency would prosecute hate crimes “against Asian Americans, Asians, and others to the fullest extent of the law.” 

In May, a group of 16 Democratic senators, citing Public Integrity’s investigation, urged the Justice Department’s civil rights division to develop a detailed plan to counteract the discrimination and assaults. 

So far, the division has not announced any hate crime charges in connection to the anti-Asian violence. The agency did not respond to a request for comment this week from Public Integrity. 

President Joe Biden issued an executive order in January denouncing the incidents. He ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to “consider issuing guidance describing best practices for advancing cultural competency, language access, and sensitivity” toward Asian Americans as part of its COVID-19 response. He also called on the Justice Department to better track hate crimes and to consider working with state and local agencies and community groups to prevent more bullying and harassment.

While Democrats have praised Biden’s executive order, Asian American members of Congress want more action.

“It is a good start, but we need to build it out further,” Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) said Friday during a press conference hosted by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

The caucus chair, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), said House members plan to hold hearings on the issue and have requested a meeting with the Justice Department. She wants to know if the agency is reaching out to Asian American community groups and to see if attorneys plan to prosecute any cases.

“I think we need help from the Department of Justice to make sure that people are indeed arrested and brought to justice,” she said.

Alexia Fernández Campbell is a senior reporter at Public Integrity. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @AlexiaCampbell.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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