Elizabeth Aguilera, CALmatters
SAN SALVADOR — As Gov. Gavin Newsom touched down in El Salvador yesterday to begin a three-day trip designed to contrast his own approach to immigration with that of his nemesis, President Donald Trump, the contrast could hardly have been more stark.
Trump had just visited California’s southern border to announce “Our country is full…. we can’t take you anymore, I’m sorry, can’t happen. So turn around, that’s the way it is.” His State Department has moved to cut off all foreign aid, more than $450 million, to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as punishment for what he described as their failure to halt the exodus. And then Sunday he announced the resignation of his Homeland Security secretary, which was widely interpreted as a sign of a further immigration crackdown.
“I don’t like people being called invaders,” said Newsom, a Democrat. “I don’t like the language coming from the Trump administration, I don’t like the rhetoric coming out of the administration. I want to understand.”
His trip, he added, “sends a message.”
“The rhetoric is so toxic coming out of the White House and it impacts people here in a very real way,” he said. “I think having a counter-narrative, which is one of respect of the human condition and talks about the morality and ethics of calling people invaders.”
Newsom is in El Salvador for three days to explore the roots of migration that are driving thousands of people to the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America. He plans to meet with the Salvadoran president, U.S. ambassador, president-elect, and humanitarian and gang intervention advocates.
Yesterday his motorcade sped through the streets of El Salvador’s capital city to its cathedral, to visit the tomb of Saint Oscar Romero, a bishop known for his work on poverty and violence who was assassinated in the 1980s and is considered a civil rights hero by Salvadorans. The governor lit a candle alongside his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo of Los Angeles, herself a Salvadoran immigrant.
San Salvador Mayor Ernesto Muyshondt took the church tour as an opportunity to share his concern about losing U.S. aid money—a resource he credits for helping impact the level of violence in the county and funding diversion programs for kids.
“We are grateful for the governor’s positions in defense of our people,” he said. “It’s important for us for him to see the efforts we are trying to make our city and country more secure and to make it so our people can find more opportunities here.”
Newsom would not say if the state could or would fund programs in the country, but stressed that partnership, trade and private investment are ways to help the country boost economic opportunities.
“We have human resources that can help with stabilizing this part of the world that we share so many individuals in common with,” he said.
Critics back home have said the governor should focus on fixing the problems of Californians, including dirty water, flooding, fire damage and other challenges.
And President Trump, during his border visit, emphasized the danger resulting when “rough tough people with criminal records are asking for asylum.
“Gov. Newsom, honestly, is living in a different world. That’s a very dangerous world he’s living in,” the president continued. “And if he keeps living there? Lots of problems for the people of California. They don’t want that. They wanna be secure. They wanna be safe.”
Fielding questions from reporters Sunday, Newsom defended his trip, saying it is his “responsibility” to understand what is happening because California is home to the largest community of Salvadorans outside of El Salvador.
“You want to end the ‘crisis’ on the border?” he said. “Stabilize these countries, create economic opportunity, and you end the crisis. You don’t have to spend money militarizing your border, you don’t have to build a border wall. You spend a tenth of the money on stabilizing the community as opposed to this. That’s why I say it’s just manufactured, pure political theater.”
Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York, said it’s appropriate for the governor to visit El Salvador given California’s demographics and progressive leanings.
“California has taken a different approach to all of its residents—which includes Salvadorans, who have come from there and have family there—than the federal government has,” he said. “You have to address root causes which are the conditions which are driving this and you also have to create some opportunities for really desperate people to migrate legally.”
Rosa Hernandez, 54, waited outside the church while Newsom was inside. She and her granddaughter had been in side the cathedral but where ushered out when it was cleared for the governor’s visit.
She said she doesn’t have enough money to try to go to the United States but she said she’s known many people who have left because they can’t find work and because of the violence. All six of her children are grown now, but she still worries.
“When they go out you don’t know if they are going to come back, if they are going to live or die, but I have to trust in God,” she said. “The only thing that anyone can do to help is to help improve security here, because nobody does anything about it.”
Inside, below the main church Newsom, took his time writing in a guest book beside the ornate tomb.
He said he wrote: “ I never thought I’d be kneeling in front of Saint Romero as governor of California trying to express my appreciation, which is what I phrased of the privilege of being here and trying to modestly live out some of the values that Saint Romero practiced.”
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