RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Members of the Virginia General Assembly are forming the state’s first Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus.

The virtual launch on Friday morning was planned to coincide with a “National Day of Action and Healing.” People are using the hashtag #StopAsianHate.

It comes after a gunman in Atlanta killed six women of Asian descent amid a reported rise in violence and harassment against this group during the coronavirus pandemic.

Del. Kathy Tran (D-Springfield), one of five founding members of the new caucus, was overcome with emotion during the group’s first official meeting.

“I actually didn’t realize how much I needed this and how powerful it is that we are coming together,” Tran said in tears. “We have been so othered that we are at the point that we are dehumanized.”

“The formation of the AAPI Caucus symbolizes a shift in the Virginia AAPI community. We will not be silent any longer,” said Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach).

The group plans to hold a virtual listening tour in April to hear from Asian American communities in Virginia Beach, Central Virginia and Northern Virginia. They said this will help them identify policy priorities going into the 2022 legislative session, which will be detailed in a report expected to come out in May.

So far, the group is planning to advocate for improved language assistance resources at state agencies, such as the Virginia Employment Commission.

Also among the caucus’s early priorities is gaining a better understanding of anti-Asian hate crimes in the Commonwealth.

“There are some data being collected but it’s certainly not adequate and that’s true for the federal government and states,” said Del. Mark Keam (D-Vienna). “There are only a few counties and states in the entire country that do a good job collecting the data and also dis-aggregating it…Asian can be one of 40 national origins.”

According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased in 2020 by nearly 150 percent compared to 2019 in 16 major cities. Another report released by “Stop APPI Hate” documented 49 incidents of discrimination against Asian Americans in the last year in Virginia, with nearly 3,8000 nationwide.

Data from the Virginia State Police paints a different picture. The agency documented seven anti-Asian hate crimes in its 2019 annual crime report. The full 2020 report has not been released yet but, according to preliminary numbers provided by a VSP spokesperson, five anti-Asian hate crimes were reported in 2020.

“The numbers we do have are under-reported. I actually receive emails and calls to my office from Asian Americans, especially South Asians, who are not comfortable reporting to law enforcement,” said Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-Ashburn).

As the General Assembly looks for ways to improve data-reporting, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) is trying to expand the definition of a hate crime under Virginia law.

Hashmi’s bill, which died in committee earlier this year, aimed to hold attackers accountable if a crime was triggered by the perception of a victim’s sexual, racial or ethnic identity. It also sought to add national origin to the list of protected classes, among other categories.

Hashmi said this would be a critical change in the state’s interpretation of hate crimes because it would shift focus to the intent of the attacker, rather than the actual ethnicity or nationality of the victim.

“We do need to expand our comprehensive understanding of what hate crimes mean and how we may be able to further prosecute hate crimes in the Commonwealth,” Hashmi said.

Ultimately, four Democrats sided with Republicans to kill the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, largely because they felt Hashmi’s definition was too broad.

“It seems to me this would sweep up almost 95 percent of crimes,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) during the committee hearing. “For example, there could’ve been vandalism in the city of Richmond this summer that was directed at some businesses because of the perceived association of that owner. They may have been perceived as being White.”

“I am offended that folks brought this and then clouded, or wrapped it up in BLM, and suggested that if we vote against it, somehow we’re not supporting the prosecution of hate crimes, cause that is not what we are doing,” said Sen. Joseph Morrissey (D-Richmond) during the debate.