By Trevor Hunnicutt and Nandita Bose
ATLANTA (Reuters) - President Joe Biden deplored a surge in anti-Asian violence in the United States after a deadly shooting rampage in Georgia, and asked all Americans to stand together against hate during a visit to the state on Friday.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met for more than an hour with leaders and state lawmakers from the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, which has been rattled by this week's murders of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, after a year of rising anti-Asian violence.
"Hate can have no safe harbor in America. It must stop. And it is on all of us, all of us together, to make it stop," Biden said after the meeting, calling on U.S. lawmakers to pass a COVID-19 hate crimes bill that would expand Justice Department review of hate crimes exacerbated by the pandemic.
Harris, the first Asian-American vice president in U.S. history, tied the violence to the long history of racism in the United States and likened it to the targeting of Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"Racism is real in America, and it has always been. Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been. Sexism, too," Harris said. "The president and I will not be silent. We will not stand by. We will always speak out against violence, hate crimes and discrimination wherever and whenever it occurs."
A 21-year-old man has been charged with Tuesday's murders at three spas in and around Atlanta. Investigators said the suspect, who is white, suggested that sexual frustration led him to commit violence. But political leaders and civil rights advocates have speculated the killings were motivated at least in part by anti-Asian sentiment.
Advocates say the surge of attacks on Asian Americans is largely the result of the community being targeted over the coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.
On Friday, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the violence was exacerbated by language used by former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the "China virus" and the "kung flu."
Biden ordered the U.S. flag flown at half-staff at the White House to honor the victims of the Atlanta area shootings.
SHIFT IN FOCUS
The meeting with Asian-American community leaders was a shift in focus of a trip originally planned to promote the newly enacted $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
Asian-American voters constitute one of the fastest growing racial and ethnic groups in the country and turned out in record numbers in presidential battleground states in the 2020 election, according to data from TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm.
In Georgia, Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters exceeded their total 2016 turnout by 58%, the firm said. These voters were key to carrying Biden to success in states where the race was close such as Georgia, the firm said.
As he headed to Georgia, Biden stumbled as he climbed aboard Air Force One. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters he was "doing 100 percent fine" and suggested high winds at Joint Base Andrews near Washington may have been a factor.
The Democratic president's trip was initially part of the "Help is Here" campaign, which he kicked off on Monday to promote his promise of "shots in arms and money in pockets," after signing the COVID-19 relief bill into law last week. Biden has traveled to Pennsylvania and Harris has been to Nevada and Colorado to tout the benefits of the package.
Before they met with Asian-American leaders, Biden and Harris received a coronavirus update at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where they thanked health officials for their effort fighting the pandemic.
"This is a war and you are the frontline troops," Biden said. "We owe you a debt of gratitude for all the lives you've saved."
In his remarks after meeting with community leaders, Biden touted the COVID-19 relief bill's benefits for Georgia, saying the state’s schools will get $4 billion and state government $5 billion.
"That’s going to make it possible to keep a lot of police officers, firefighters, teachers and other first responders on the job," he said.
Harris and Biden also met with Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate whose get-out-the vote efforts are widely credited with helping Biden carry the state last November and their fellow Democrats win two runoffs in Georgia that gave them control of the U.S. Senate.
"If anyone ever wondered if voting can change a country, Georgia just proved it can," he said. But he warned the battle for voting rights was not over.
A bill passed by the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives this month would restrict ballot drop boxes, tighten absentee voting requirements and limit early voting on Sundays, curtailing traditional "Souls to the Polls" voter turnout programs in Black churches.
Biden and Harris also met U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and Democratic Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
They discussed the Georgia legislation "along with possible solutions to make voting more accessible," spokeswoman Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
Republicans across the country are using Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in 2020 to back state-level voting changes they say are needed to restore election integrity.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Atlanta and Nandita Bose, Andrea Shalal and Alexandra Alper in Washington; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell and Sonya Hepinstall)