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'It's not safe': Cleveland attorney and Hong Kong native reacts to Atlanta spa shootings and ongoing anti-Asian climate in America

Margaret Wong has practiced immigration law in Cleveland for four decades. She spoke about the problem of calling COVID-19 'China virus' and much more.

CLEVELAND — The nation is coming to grips with the shooting death of eight people at three Atlanta-area spas that took place on Tuesday. Six of the eight victims were members of the Asian community, causing many to call the incident a hate crime. Police have said they are investigating if the killings are racially motivated. 

Margaret Wong is the founder and managing partner of Margaret W. Wong & Associates, LLC, with offices in Cleveland and eight other cities. For more than 40 years, she has practiced immigration and nationality law, while also serving as a civic leader in Northeast Ohio. 

Wong watched the events from Atlanta unfold with great sadness.

"I was glued to my television and just couldn't believe it. We've talked about this for a whole year about where the virus has come from. It's really not fair to put all of us together and think we're all somebody. We're a very diverse community," she told 3News while mentioning many other of the various Asian communities that make up the minority. "You don't just go out and kill people because they look like us. It's not safe."

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many political leaders including former President Donald Trump have used the term "China virus" to label COVID-19. The viral outbreak started spreading in Wuhan, China last year. More recently, Lake County Common Pleas Court Judge John O’Donnell used the term in the Lake County Bar Association's Lake Legal Views newsletter. Wong was one of the first to publicly protest. 

"You can't do that," Wong said. "This is America. This is why so many of us came here a long time ago. We need to learn from each other. We need to have a voice and have our young people get involved. We have not been very active in politics and government. We don't know how to talk. We don't know how to have a voice."

Even before the incident in Atlanta, Activists for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have been raising the alarm about seemingly random crimes that have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic started, racist incidents against Asian-Americans started popping up, recorded in viral videos, wrongfully linking all Asian-Americans to the global pandemic.

Research released this week by Stop AAPI Hate says nearly 4,000 incidents were reported during the pandemic. The report says of those incidents, the majority of them involved verbal harassment and shunning, or avoiding Asian Americans on purpose.

"We have always been a model minority. We try to learn English, we assimilate into the community, we do charitable work. We don't use public rants, we go to our neighbors asking for help. This is not nice. This is huge. Not good," Wong added. 

The situation has led to the Cleveland City Council passing a resolution condemning racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against the AAPI community and committing to finding ways to change it. Similar legislation was introduced last summer at the state level by Representative Stephanie Howse, but it didn’t make it very far.

"We got one hearing, that's it," says Howse. "We did our introductory, sponsor testimony and that was the extent of it."

As things are seemingly only getting worse, Representatives Howse and Tavia Galonski decided to reintroduce the bill earlier this month. This time they're hoping for a different outcome.

"Let us go through the legislative process and hopefully get it over the finish line in this general assembly," says Howse. "So our brothers and sisters within the AAPI community truly know we appreciate them, we see them, we hear them and we are working for them."

It’s a step in combatting racism, but Wong says another step is for those who are threatened, harassed or discriminated against to report it.

"That's part of the problem. Our people feel ashamed and very embarrassed by this," Wong said. She once was bitten in the finger at an airport and reported the incident to police, but nothing ever came of it. "This happens to all of us and we don't think of reporting it. We need to start. We cannot be model minorities anymore."

You can watch the full interview with Margaret Wong in the player below:

More on the Atlanta shooting: