The lawmaker attempting to keep her constituents safe on two fronts

"Our government is not providing resources. And so now our neighbors have to,” Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou told NBC News.
Image: Yuh Line Niou, a Chinatown representative fighting for her community.
Yuh Line Niou, a Chinatown representative fighting for her community.Jun Cen / for NBC News

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By Kimmy Yam

Yuh-Line Niou, a Democratic member of the New York state Assembly, says she is not thinking about her campaign even though it is an election year. She’s been splitting her time between quelling fears from constituents about the rising number of hate attacks directed at Asian Americans and scrappily obtaining personal protective equipment, or PPE, often enlisting the help of an aunt and uncle who live in China.

Four years ago, Niou, who is Taiwanese American, became the first person of Asian descent to be elected in the district, which includes New York City’s Chinatown. Now she said she’s preoccupied with her community’s survival as the COVID-19 pandemic ripple through the country.

“It's desperation for resources,” she told NBC Asian America in an interview. “It's desperation for help and support of any kind.”

While many sectors of society are slowing down due to shelter-in-place orders, Niou is taking on the virus on two fronts -- ensuring that her constituents have the essentials necessary for survival, including masks and food, and fighting mounting anxieties because of pervasive anti-Asian sentiment.

Her office, along with a team of volunteers, has called to check in on more than 30,000 constituents since January, she said.

“My resources have all been turned over to checking on people, making sure that we can get food delivery out to people, making sure that we can get PPEs out to people making sure that, you know, people are actually getting the resources that they need,” Niou said. “Because our government is not providing resources. And so now our neighbors have to.”

Niou’s frustration comes through on the phone. She recalled that in January, her district already began to see the effects of pandemic-related racism chip away at her community and was given a glimpse of what was to come. Many of the small businesses and restaurants witnessed their once-bustling establishments sharply lose traffic. Though she had begun to raise concerns around the virus, she says the federal government failed to respond to ensure adequate resources for both businesses and families.

According to a report from The New York Times, President Donald Trump received warnings from advisers, experts and intelligence agencies in January, calling for aggressive action to confront the virus. A National Security Council office had reportedly received word that month of the pandemic’s spread across the U.S. and swiftly presented the president with suggestions that included shutting down certain cities. However, Trump continued to downplay the virus and in February had accused Democrats of “politicizing” it.

It wasn’t until March that Trump began to move forward with the options presented. Niou said the delayed reaction by Washington has come at a cost to communities across the nation. Like many other legislators, Niou has had to pick up the slack and get nonprofits and businesses involved in meeting her community's unique needs. A sizable portion of Chinatown residents are elderly or aging immigrants, many of whom are financially vulnerable or live in poverty. Many also rely on homecare workers who have since been furloughed or laid off.

Every day, Niou sends out a briefing covering topics such as COVID-19-related legislation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s updates, and other tips on how to find help. She also spends hours talking to restaurants, organizations and businesses to facilitate food donations, deliveries and other services. Often, Niou herself suits up in her own protective gear and delivers masks and meals to older constituents and essential workers. To procure masks, which are tough to find, she calls family members in Asia who are able to arrange shipments.

“I've given out over a couple thousand masks. And if I didn't have my uncle and my aunt helping me, I wouldn't be able to get these things,” she said.

Niou also talks to nervous residents about the hate attacks directed toward the Asian American community, an issue Niou was rudely awakened to herself.

She said that in February, she got two voicemails from the same number, one to her city office and the other to her Albany office. The caller accused her of eating bats and initially, Niou wrote it off as run-of-the-mill trolling. She soon realized that this was a new, pandemic-specific brand of racism.

As a visible public official, Niou said she’s been targeted by racist insults but that they haven’t shaken her. But her constituents are on edge. Niou is adamant that though the ethnic enclave may provide support for the community of immigrant families, it does not protect them from racism. Areas with large Asian American populations, like Daly City and San Francisco, have not been exempt from the anti-Asian sentiment. She said she regularly gets texts or messages from worried residents, and some fear the hate attacks so much that they’ve considered buying firearms to protect themselves.

“Violence begets violence, and I'm scared about that,” she said.

Historically, Asian Americans and other marginalized groups have been scapegoated in times of economic downturns and national security threats, Niou noted. Part of the issue is that when it comes to Asian Americans, concerns are rarely taken seriously.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Justice did not announce measures to mitigate the targeting of Asian Americans, yet took action in similar situations with other communities, including after the 2003 SARS outbreak and the Sept, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Niou feels that the model minority myth, which has obscured Asian American issues in the past, is in part to blame.

“So few times when people have targeted our community specifically has the institutions actually said, like, “Hey, Asian Americans need protection,’” she said. “It's very interesting how people deem our communities as having some kind of power when many people don't even realize that's a kind of erasure and hurt.”

As she helps guide constituents through the pandemic, she remains firm on fighting back. And for Niou, this means pouring energy into making sure the Legislature can pass policies and getting resources to those who are often left behind.

This story is part of our Asian Pacific American Heritage Month series, "AAPI Frontline," honoring essential workers who are serving their communities during the coronavirus pandemic. Read more here.

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