U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says he got a loud and clear message from Oregon's Asian Americans — often stereotyped as a silent minority — about what the federal government should do against pandemic-related hate crimes and for additional vaccinations and aid to small businesses.
The Oregon Democrat has joined the effort by Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono for a new COVID-19 hate crimes bill and a separate resolution to condemn hatred of Asians. But he also said there are things that can be done now.
"In the time it takes to get a law passed … we have to do some prosecutions right now," Wyden said after a roundtable discussion Friday, March 26, at the Asian Health and Service Center in Southeast Portland. "We've got the authority right now. We've got to use it right now."
Stop AAPI Hate, a research group, has compiled 3,800 reports of incidents nationwide during the year since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Wyden said he will ensure that the Asian Health and Service Center gets a share of $7.6 billion that President Joe Biden's pandemic recovery plan allocates for community health centers, which reach out to underserved populations. Wyden also said small businesses should get better access to forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program — which Congress just extended — and a new $25 billion aid fund for restaurants championed by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon.
"I'm going to make it clear that dollar for dollar, there is no better investment than in the kind of things you are doing," he said after a tour of the center, which he spoke at as a U.S. representative during its opening in 1983. "The key is vaccination. When people are vaccinated, employers start hiring, and we've got a chance to make things better."
Holden Leung, its chief executive, said Wyden requested an in-person roundtable discussion with about a dozen people, including state Rep. Khanh Pham, a Democrat whose district covers the Jade District and part of Southeast Portland. He said the meeting was the first event, other than vaccination clinics, since the center shut down a year ago at the onset of the pandemic.
Leung said the center has tallied 1,168 vaccinations, far more than the initial 150 doses the center was offered. From the center's database of 20,000 names, he said, the staff had to cull 1,000 names from 3,000 people who qualify for vaccinations because of age or underlying medical conditions.
He said the center-distributed fliers in several languages.
Small, not silent
Oregon's Asian and Pacific Islander population is still relatively small. But the 2019 American Community Survey, based on estimates drawn from questionnaires by the U.S. Census Bureau, pegged it at 7%, up from 4.2% in 2000. The 2020 Census numbers have not been released yet.
While the catalyst for the meeting was the March 16 killings of eight people — including six women of Korean or Chinese descent — at three Atlanta-area spas, panel members who spoke to Wyden said there has been vandalism and worse aimed at businesses in Portland's Jade District.
"Law enforcement oftentimes will respond, like it did in Atlanta, in a way that isolates our communities by blaming the victim, making it a different topic or issue," Chanpone Sinlapasai-Okamura, an immigration lawyer and a member of the Oregon Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, said. "We need a bill that has teeth."
But Duncan Hwang, associate director of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, said anti-Asian hatred must be dealt with in multiple ways. "I doubt we are going to be able to enforce our way out of hate crimes," he said.
"The system needs to change," Coi Vu, director of the Pacific Islander and Asian Family Center for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Oregon, said. "The culture needs to change."
She said white boys harassed her and her partner recently while they were running in the St. John's neighborhood.
Leung's center is not in the Jade District, which focuses on 82nd Avenue, but he said two bullet holes have damaged the building in the past year.
"For me, hate is somewhat like the COVID-19 virus," he said. "It is contagious."
Rosaline Hui is owner and editor of the Portland Chinese Times and sits on the Jade District steering committee. She said her business has been vandalized three times, and other business owners have had repeat incidents, but there is no meaningful response from city police or government.
She said some owners finally joined public protests March 20 and 27.
"For Chinese, for most Asians, it's the same. We try to keep silent. We are afraid to come out," she said. "But this time, so many Chinese came out. Why? Because they said we cannot bear it any more."
'Help us be American'
Tou Meksavanh came to the United States as a refugee from Laos. She retired in 2010 as principal of Duniway Elementary School in Portland. Without naming names, she said she hopes that under Biden, "this rampant hate that was instigated and encouraged" by Biden's predecessor will fade away.
"In all my years that I have been here, since 1975 as a refugee, this is the first time I have been afraid of being in America," she said. "I am sure other Asian representatives in this group would agree and understand why I feel the way I feel.
"I was in war-torn Laos. But I was never afraid because the fighting was somewhere else, and I knew I would be safe. Living in the United States, I have never felt unsafe. But I do now."
Wyden told the group he is familiar with prejudice toward immigrants. His parents fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but other family members died in the Holocaust, the Nazi-organized mass killings of 6 million Jews and others during World War II.
He responded by citing the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights advocate of the 1960s: "Nobody is free until everybody is free."
Junghee Lee is on the faculty of the School of Social Work and a fellow at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.
"Asians are visible now," she said. "Please help us to be American. We have earned it."
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