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California's first Filipino American AG on addressing anti-Asian hate, priorities

“The AAPI community’s fight will be my fight. And part of that is breaking down barriers,” Rob Bonta said, referring to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

When Rob Bonta learned he was tapped to be California’s next attorney general, he headed to the International Hotel in San Francisco for a press conference to announce the news — the same location where his mother had stood more than 40 years ago to protest the eviction of Filipino elders.

March 24 was an overwhelming and emotional day for Bonta, 49, who became the state’s first Filipino American legislator in 2012 and has now become its first Filipino American attorney general.

Attorney General Rob Bonta speaks after he was sworn in as California's 34th Attorney General, Friday, April 23, 2021 in Sacramento, Calif. Bonta, 49, is the first Filipino American to head the California Department of Justice.Paul Kitagaki Jr. / AP

“I thought about where I came from,” he told NBC News of the day he was appointed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom. “Born in the Philippines, coming to this country as a 2-month-old baby, being raised in Sacramento most of my life after being in the Central Valley with the United Farmers of America, dreaming about how I could help others and being inspired about what my parents did — what they taught me, the values that instilled in me.”

The International Hotel was a meaningful location for the press conference, he said. Now, four decades later, his mother found herself there to see her son nominated to a role he has described as “the honor and privilege of a lifetime.”

Bonta, a graduate of Yale Law School, was sworn in as the state’s attorney general April 23, and he has since been focused on a number of priorities, first and foremost addressing the rise in anti-Asian violence that's been rampant throughout California and the country.

“So many horrific attacks on AAPI community members, including our elders, ranging from yelling and spitting at our community members, to slapping them across the face and murder,” he said, referring to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “And it deserves and requires a very strong and thoughtful response.”

He announced at a press conference last week that his office would launch a racial justice bureau, a decision that was driven in part by the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents. The bureau will bring in seven new attorneys to contribute to ongoing efforts to address bias and hate at their roots.

All of our communities deserve to be seen, to be valued and to be protected. My office is committed to seeing all communities, valuing them, protecting them and defending them. Their fights will be my fight.

The bureau's responsibilities will include assisting with efforts against hate crimes by working with community organizations on prevention, information sharing and reporting; helping address implicit and explicit bias in policing by launching and supporting investigations when appropriate; issuing best practice guidance to local law enforcement, prosecutors and other public entities; addressing discrimination at post-secondary institutions; and developing reparation proposals for African Americans.

“All of our communities deserve to be seen, to be valued and to be protected,” he said. “My office is committed to seeing all communities, valuing them, protecting them and defending them. Their fights will be my fight.”

Bonta said he plans to work with law enforcement agencies to better identify and investigate hate crimes. He also plans to work with law enforcement and communities to build trust that will allow community members to feel safe about reporting hate crimes.

“We need to be victim-centered in our approaches, providing healing for victims that is culturally competent, provides language access and has trauma-informed care and mental health services as part of it,” he said.

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Second on Bonta’s priority list is the establishment of a division to ensure fair and impartial investigations of police shootings resulting in deaths.

“I see the role as the people’s attorney, being the champion for everyday folks who are hurt or harmed or abused or mistreated, and especially our most vulnerable communities that are voiceless and disadvantaged,” he said. “I see the role as protecting the little guy from the abuse of power by the big guy.”

Other top concerns for the attorney general are addressing inequities in the criminal justice system, communities living at the intersection of poverty and pollution, and holding multinational corporations accountable for committing fraud and carrying out schemes against Californians.

I grew up with this belief instilled in me that we can make change as everyday people, and that it’s part of our obligation and duty to be part of the ongoing effort to make more progress to our communities, and change people’s lives for the better.

Bonta told NBC News in 2018 that he remembered seeing his parents advocate and fight for vulnerable communities. He remembered witnessing them ask decision-makers with power and influence to make choices that supported those communities. They’re whom he credits as his inspiration to pursue public service.

His mother was involved with the anti-martial law movement related to former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, who was overthrown in the 1980s. His father marched in Selma, Alabama, during the civil rights movement. Both his parents were farmworker organizers for the United Farm Workers of America.

“I grew up with this belief instilled in me that we can make change as everyday people, and that it’s part of our obligation and duty to be part of the ongoing effort to make more progress to our communities, and change people’s lives for the better,” Bonta said in that interview.

Making people’s lives better is something he said he’s sought to do and reflected on throughout his time in public office. During his time as a California legislator, he authored bills that banned for-profit prisons and immigration detention centers, eliminated cash bail and protected renters from unfair evictions.

Bonta, former chair of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, has also authored legislation that specifically addresses the concerns of Asian Americans in the state, including a bill signed into law in 2016 that requires the Department of Public Health to disaggregate health data for Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander groups. Seeing the diverse experiences within the community, which is not a monolith, reveals the disparate outcomes that require action to address, he said.

Another measure required the state parole board to consider an expedited review of pardon applications from individuals at risk of deportation — which heavily affects Southeast Asian American refugees, among other communities — and it was signed into law in 2018. Angela Chan, policy director and senior staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, said in an email that the legislation has improved transparency in the pardon and commutation process. As a result, some community members with urgent immigration cases or with medical conditions have seen their applications reviewed at a faster timeline, she added.

“Overall, this reform championed by AG Bonta has improved transparency and access to the clemency process, and we are grateful for that,” she said.

Bonta’s wife, Mia Bonta, is now running to fill his seat in the state assembly. They have three children and live in Alameda, a city in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Bonta said he is deeply honored to be the first Filipino American attorney general of California, just as he was honored to be the first Filipino American in the state Legislature in 2012.

“The AAPI community’s fight will be my fight. And part of that is breaking down barriers, opening up doors of opportunity, and representation and action, and making sure that every AAPI community member knows that they belong,” he said.

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This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.