SAN FRANCISCO — The first Asian American sheriff in California history walks over to a closet inside his City Hall office to stow some equipment, then takes a seat behind a large desk. He extends his arms, fingers interlaced.
“So,” Sheriff Paul Miyamoto says casually as if to imply that he isn’t sure what all the fuss is about. “What would you like to know?”
On the one hand, as the son of a Japanese American father and a Chinese American mother and the husband of a Filipino American wife, Miyamoto is well aware his election represents an inspirational milestone for a new generation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a broad group often referred to by the acronym AAPI.
On the other, as a 23-year department veteran who was sworn in last month as San Francisco County’s 37th sheriff in 150 years, Miyamoto sees his rise up through the ranks simply as a result of hard work in his beloved profession.
“Being the first sheriff of my heritage is humbling, and it gives me a sense of responsibility to be a role model,” he says. “But what I’d really like is for us to never have any more firsts. I’d like us to be on an equal footing. Hopefully, I’m a step on that path.”
The election of a new sheriff with a familiar immigrant backstory has particular resonance these days.
President Donald Trump and his administration have not only taken a hard stance toward immigration broadly but also have clashed with so-called sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, where lawmakers and advocates have pledged to resist the sweeps of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers on the grounds that they are unconstitutional.
Miyamoto says he is foremost a law enforcement officer duty-bound to deliver on the civic promise of public safety. But he says he is also a proud product of a city that has a long history of helping immigrants and people of color, and is eager to balance both.
“San Francisco is very forward-thinking in terms of social justice issues, including the clashes with the federal government these days,” he says. “My predecessors have set the foundation in this office, which means reflecting the values we have here. Supporting sanctuary cities and the like, and ensuring people are equal in terms of how they’re treated.”
Miyamoto says when considering “who we hand over to the federal government,” he won’t hesitate to take a hard look at anyone with a violent history. But he refuses to let his deputies act in a manner that demonizes people because of their ethnicity.
“I don’t want to see anything happen in line with what happened to my own family and my cultural group,” he says, referring to the internment during World War II of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry largely out west. “I don’t want to see citizens of our community behind barbed wire simply because of who they are.”
That attitude is bound to be a boon to San Francisco’s immigrant community, says Bill Ong Hing, professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, which represents unaccompanied immigrant children as well as families who are in removal proceedings.
“Visibility is everything,” Hing says of Miyamoto’s position. “When immigrants see someone who looks like them or is at least a person of color, that sends a very positive message.”
The San Francisco sheriff’s department is 78% male and 22% female, and very ethnically diverse, including whites (25%), Asian Americans (23%), Hispanic Americans (21%), Filipino Americans (14%), African Americans (13%) and Native Americans (0.5%).
“Without the trust of the immigrant community, law enforcement officials cannot do their work and provide security for all parts of the city,” Hing says. “Respecting the immigrant community is good public policy and good policing.”
A family interned during World War II
For Miyamoto, being sensitive to the plight of newcomers is deeply ingrained. In the early part of the 20th century, Miyamoto’s father’s family had achieved “a small measure of the American Dream,” owning a San Francisco home and a thriving dry-cleaning business.
But after Japan attacked Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor in 1941, destroying a large part of the U.S. naval fleet, Americans of Japanese ancestry were rounded up because federal officials were concerned, despite a lack of evidence, that the group consisted of potential traitors and saboteurs. Eventually, President Ronald Reagan would sign the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which included an apology and a $20,000 check for each surviving victim.
Those Japanese American detainees included Miyamoto’s grandfather, grandmother, father and two uncles. Stripped of their home and business, the family spent years at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center east of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, along with 10,000 other detainees.
Despite being interned, several of Miyamoto’s uncles joined other detainees in becoming part of the highly decorated, all-Japanese American 442nd Infantry Regiment. One uncle even designed the regiment’s “Go for broke” Statue of Liberty-themed logo, which as a child Miyamoto was stunned to see in a war museum during a visit to Washington, D.C.
“It meant so much to me to see that,” he says.
While some Japanese Americans likely saw service as a way out of their imprisonment, Miyamoto says such actions were also “part of the fiber of Japanese culture, which is being a part of the whole and of putting yourself in front of everyone else in times of adversity.”
When the Miyamotos finally were let out of the camp, starting over again was a hardship. But the family eventually thrived, with the future sheriff’s father, Phil, studying law and becoming a California state appellate judge.
That accomplishment greatly influenced his son’s eventual career choice. “I’m part of that legacy of service, I guess,” he says.
Asian Americans flex political muscle
Miyamoto’s success is reflective of the proliferation of public servants of Asian and Pacific Islander descent not just in San Francisco — which has had a Chinese American mayor and chief of police — but across California and the nation.
With its proximity to the Pacific Rim, California has long been a magnet for immigration from the Far East. Of the Golden State’s 40 million people, some 15% are of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage, according to the recent U.S. Census, with a similar percentage of lawmakers in the state’s Legislature in Sacramento.
Statewide, U.S. citizens of Asian and Pacific Islander descent account for 3 million registered voters, representing 13% of the total vote. Reports indicate a majority of those voters remain undecided and could be a powerful factor in the state’s upcoming March 3 Democratic primary.
Nationally, Asian American and Pacific Islander citizens represents 6% of the population and about 4% of the electorate. But some political pundits say that if there are upticks in what is traditionally a low voter turn-out rate — because of factors such as language barriers and poor outreach from political campaigns — this growing minority could soon have an outsized impact on state and national elections.
“We’re very happy for Sheriff Miyamoto and the Bay Area to have even more Asian American leadership, especially in a position that involves votes from the public,” says Cyndy Yu-Robinson, executive director of the National Association of Asian American Professionals in Raleigh, North Carolina, a non-profit networking group. Miyamoto has served as a board member of the group’s San Francisco chapter.
“We need more Asian Americans who are willing to put themselves out there for public service,” says Yu-Robinson.
In Washington, D.C., 14 members of the House of Representatives and three members of the Senate are of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage, including high-profile leaders such as Thai American Iraq war veteran Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), Indian American Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Samoan American presidential hopeful Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).
San Francisco celebrates diversity
Miyamoto’s own path to public service was direct. He grew up attending Bay Area and California public schools, earning a law degree that found him interning with the San Francisco district attorney’s office.
But he quickly changed tack from coveting a desk to hitting the pavement. “I thought I could do more being on the front lines,” he says. “Maybe by being a member of a public safety organization, I figured I could be there at the beginning of when things happened to people and be more helpful to them.”
He applied to the police, fire and sheriff’s departments for any job in San Francisco. The sheriff’s department welcomed him. On Miyamoto’s first day on the job, he was late replacing another deputy. She was ticked off — and later became his wife.
Miyamoto lives in San Francisco along with his Filipino American wife, LeeAnn, who retired from the police department to focus on raising the couple’s five children. They reside in the same house Miyamoto grew up in on the western end of the city.
“With prices here these days, that’s about the only way to afford to stay,” he says with a laugh.
The family celebrates various Asian holidays, he says. Most recently, Miyamoto saluted his Chinese ancestry by hoisting a dragon in a new year’s parade in town.
“Representing so many different Asian cultures is great for the kids and also reflective of the fabric of San Francisco,” he says of a city that is 45% white and 34% Asian.
Being on the streets of the city often as both a citizen and peace officer, Miyamoto knows first-hand how much homelessness is impacting life here. Many of California’s 140,000 homeless people call San Francisco home, and often Miyamoto’s county-wide deputies — his force of 850 serve as a policing supplement to the much larger city police department — are called upon to send street residents to appropriate agencies.
The vexing problem, Miyamoto says, has “room for improvement; I won’t sugar coat it.”
But that said, he says he is pleased to not only hail from but also serve a city where many citizens are more inclined to help out than criticize and where what you look like often is secondary to who you are.
“Sure, even here there certainly are people who use your background and ethnicity as a way to insult you in order to feel better about themselves, and I experienced a bit of that growing up,” says Miyamoto.
“But in terms of treatment by society as a whole,” he adds, “I was and am fortunate that here in San Francisco we are mostly embracing of diversity, so there’s less of that backlash overall by individuals or the government.”
Miyamoto smiles and leans back in his office chair: “And that is something to be proud of.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava