Gavin Newsom announced Thursday that he would travel to El Salvador next month in his first international trip as California’s governor to better understand the forces driving immigration to the United States.
At a Los Angeles healthcare clinic founded by Salvadoran refugees, Newsom described the trip as an opportunity to exert California’s leadership, learn about the migration problem and communicate it to the public, and help "change the conversation on immigration and move away from responding to the president of the United States, [who] simply doesn’t get it and does not get much done."
“You cannot solve the migrant issue by building walls,” Newsom said. “And I fear things will only get much, much worse unless we fundamentally address these issues in a more systemic way. And to the extent that the state of California can exercise its moral authority and can lead in that conversation anew, I think that’s a healthy thing, and I think that’s part of the role and responsibility of a governor.”
Newsom’s embrace of the Central American country stands in contrast to President Trump’s efforts to rescind deportation protections for Salvadorans and threats to cut off foreign aid, actions that could weaken the economy of a nation dependent on the flow of migrants to the U.S. and the financial support they send families back home.
The governor’s visit could serve as a symbolic counterweight to Trump’s immigration policy, reassuring El Salvador that close ties remain between the two nations, said David Pedersen, associate professor of anthropology at UC San Diego.
“There’s no other political representative who could stand for more Salvadorans in the U.S. than the governor of California,” Pedersen said.
At the event Thursday, Newsom said he believed California had a role to play in building relationships with other countries.
“America needs leadership internationally,” he said. “California will assert itself if this administration wants to walk away.”
Newsom announced the trip at Clinica Monseñor Oscar A. Romero, a healthcare facility named for the assassinated Salvadoran archbishop and social justice champion, in the governor’s first media event in Los Angeles since his January inauguration. Los Angeles County is home to the largest population of Salvadoran immigrants in the country, with estimates topping more than 250,000.
The governor’s schedule for the four-day trip, which is set to begin April 7, has not been publicly released.
El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world, with a homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 people in 2018. In February, the State Department renewed its travel warning advising Americans to reconsider visiting El Salvador due to crime.
Seeking to escape poverty, gang violence and corruption, nearly 22,400 Salvadorans began the process to seek asylum in the U.S. in fiscal year 2018, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on affirmative asylum applications and interviews.
Information from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse shows U.S. immigration courts rejected more than 75% of 8,235 asylum cases involving Salvadorans decided that year — more denials than any other country.
Experts say that in El Salvador, Newsom will encounter a country in strife, a product of systemic inequality and the lasting consequences of civil war.
Long-simmering tension over low wages for agricultural workers and huge profits for landowners came to a head in 1980, when Romero, an advocate for the poor whom Pope Francis canonized as a saint last year, was shot and killed by a right-wing death squad. The assassination fueled a 12-year war between leftist rebels and a Salvadoran military trained and backed by the U.S. government. In the end, 75,000 people were killed.
“The idea was to quash rebellion at any cost,” said Leisy J. Abrego, associate professor in Chicana/o studies at UCLA. “In El Salvador, it meant that anyone who might be affiliated with the leftist organizations, who might be questioning the status quo, would be used to make a statement. Those people would be disappeared. Their families would be tortured and killed.”
Young boys were forced to serve in the war, and families scrambled to send their children away, leading to an increase in immigration to the U.S. and other countries in the 1980s, Pedersen said. Government leaders recognized the limitations of agriculture as the battle dragged on and embraced the remittances Salvadorans living in the U.S. sent home to their families as a future bedrock of the economy, he said.
“What this shift did is that it locked in the reality that Salvadorans would migrate to the U.S., work and send money home,” Pedersen said. “In the aftermath of the war, the country was a U.S. ally and it couldn’t withstand the end of migration to the U.S. There’s a history of various provisions put in place to allow for continued migration.”
The World Bank reported that remittances from Salvadorans living abroad accounted for nearly 20% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2017.
Abrego and Pedersen said the war traumatized a generation of young Salvadoran men, who were taught violence and had few other skills by the time the civil war ended. Living in the U.S. in poor and low-income neighborhoods with few opportunities, some Salvadoran immigrants formed and joined gangs, including MS-13, which has origins in Los Angeles. U.S. policies to deport gang members spread MS-13 to El Salvador, which became a corridor for drug trafficking, Abrego and Pedersen said.
“By 1994, you could not go outside anymore after dark,” Abrego said. “Now it’s just a part of life there.”
Trump’s policies have tested the relationship between the two countries.
His administration has attempted to end protections for more than 200,000 Salvadorans living in the U.S. under a program that allows residents of countries experiencing political violence or natural disasters to work and live in the U.S. on a temporary basis. A federal judge in San Francisco halted the administration’s rollback of temporary protected status last year amid pending litigation.
In October, the president also tweeted a threat to cut off aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in response to a migrant caravan traveling toward the U.S.-Mexico border. A report from the Congressional Research Service, a think tank for Congress, said the U.S. appropriated $57.7 million in assistance to El Salvador to promote economic prosperity, improve security and strengthen governance in fiscal year 2018.
Abrego said she didn’t expect Trump’s actions to stop Salvadorans from immigrating to the U.S.
“I think that the situation is so unlivable right now that people are going to come no matter what,” Abrego said. “A lot of folks are leaving, and as much as they understand that it’s not a welcoming place, they have this hope that they’ll be the lucky ones to get through.”
As the Trump administration accepts fewer asylum-seekers, Newsom has accused the president of manufacturing a crisis at the southern border with Mexico and has sought to cast California as a safe haven for immigrant families.
The governor helped pass a bill this year to appropriate $5 million from the current state budget for nonprofit organizations providing shelter to asylum-seeking migrant families in the San Diego area. He’s also requested that the Legislature approve another $20 million in aid over the next three years.
Newsom is expected to tout his budget proposals on his trip to El Salvador, where he plans to meet with Central American leaders, his office said.