The governor goes to Central America
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s trip to El Salvador, which he embarks on this weekend, is full of firsts:
The first time Newsom has left the United States in his official capacity as governor. The first time any California leader has taken an official trip to the Central American republic, or justified travel abroad as a fact-finding mission to learn more about a refugee crisis.
And the expedition doubles as Rorschach test. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a gubernatorial study-abroad trip, a humanitarian and diplomatic mission befitting the state’s status as the world’s fifth-biggest economy, or pure grandstanding on a global scale.
Democratic legislative leaders praise the new governor for his willingness to learn first hand about the root causes of a migration crisis that has driven Central Americans to seek U.S. asylum. Salvadoran Californians and immigration rights organizations are applauding him for recognizing an underrepresented constituency in such a high profile way.
The fact that Newsom chose to make El Salvador his first international destination “says a lot about his values, about the need for California to be an advocate within the United States for El Salvador,” said Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, a Democrat who represents northeast Los Angeles. Carrillo is the Legislature’s only Salvadoran immigrant and will be its only member to accompany Newsom on the trip.
But outside Newsom’s political tent, reaction has ranged from bemusement to outrage. Critics argue that international migration is the U.S. president’s responsibility, not the governor’s, and that Newsom, as an ambitious Democrat, is merely boosting his anti-Trump cred.
“I’ve got areas in my district that are flooding,” said Assemblyman Devon Mathis, a Republican from Visalia. “Not in Central America. Come see the central San Joaquin Valley….Come down to where we have Third World conditions.
Newsom has said he wants to establish “more formal relationships” between California and Salvadorian lawmakers—to “better understand” why so many people make the dangerous trip from Central America to the United States, and to “communicate to the broader public—not just here in California, but across the rest of the United States—so we can change the conversation on immigration and move away from responding to a president of the United States who simply doesn’t get it.”
His expedition is premised on the idea that current migration can be slowed by improving living conditions on the ground. That contrasts with President Donald Trump, who recently cut humanitarian aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to punish those countries for not doing more to curb outward migration. Trump has accused them of helping to “set up” the so-called caravans of migrants heading for the United States.
The lack of economic opportunity, climate change and gang violence are the top reasons people are fleeing El Salvador, experts said.
Only about 2.5 % of the world’s population migrates; it’s not something people want to do, said Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, and an expert in migration from Central America.
“You have to push people hard to move in a massive way. You need war, famine, a shock to the system,” he said. “What you have in Central America is environmental malfeasance, a pattern of land tenure and climate change and people who are unable to feed their families.”
Add violence and it’s unsustainable.
El Salvador has a complicated history with the U.S., which has often run roughshod over the smallest of the Central American countries, according to many experts.
Because those countries are located on an isthmus that connects east and west, there has been interest in the region for centuries, said Jocelyn Viterna, sociology professor and Central American expert at Harvard University.
“From the very early days we see these interventions from the outside economic forces fomenting violence and unrest in Central America for reasons that don’t help Central Americans themselves,” she said.
A U.S.-backed civil war in the early 80s triggered an exodus of thousands of migrants from El Salvador to the United States. Many settled in Los Angeles.
At that time, they had little chance of getting asylum. Seeking protection from local bullies and violent gangs, youth formed their own—the notorious MS-13 and 18th St gangs.
In El Salvador, the U.S. cut off aid after the war and the country tried to organize and rebuild but chaos continued.
A few years after a 1992 peace accord, the U.S. began deporting thousands of Salvadorans with criminal records and gang affiliations.
“They found a country with a lot of people who didn’t know what do with their lives because farms were destroyed, businesses were destroyed, so much was destroyed, and the gangs took hold in El Salvador,” Viterna said.
Those deportees are credited with importing the powerful criminal gangs that continue to flourish today. That has led to waves of new migrants, coming in caravans or however they can, who are now in the direct glare of the Trump administration.
California is home to the largest group of Salvadorans outside of El Salvador, roughly 440,000 immigrants, but the community is much larger if U.S. born children are included in the count.
“Irrespective of immigration policy, [the Salvadoran population in California] is a very large community, so it is important for the governor to go visit and make connections—be they business, trade, or cultural exchange,” said Matt Barreto, a professor of political science and Chicano studies at UCLA.
Historically, gubernatorial trips overseas have been for the ostensible goal of advancing the economic interests of the state by nurturing trade relationships.
“For the most part when they travel abroad, it’s about trade, economic partnerships, and getting free vacations paid for with lobbyists’ dollars,” said Chris Thornberg of the consulting firm Beacon Economics. “They’re not staking out global positions.”
Gov. Jerry Brown may have broken that mold in traveling to Europe to tout California’s climate policy initiatives, standing in on the world stage after the Trump administration retreated. In going to El Salvador, seeking to frame California as a more humanitarian alternative to Washington, Newsom is following in his predecessor’s global-mission steps, said Thornberg: “This is Newsom channeling his inner Jerry.”
Though there’s plenty of Newsom in this trip too.
The governor has a history of going on study-abroad trips while in office. As mayor, he would frequently go on missions to cities abroad—Manilla, Mexico City, Shanghai—to return with the latest idea in city management. Sometimes the ideas would gain traction. Others, like his proposal to bring Chicago-style public surveillance cameras to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, were dead on arrival.
As lieutenant governor, Newsom took a trip with GOP legislators to Texas to research his economic development plan for that state. That earned him a rebuke from Gov. Brown.
Here in California, advocates pointed to things the state could do, such as helping detained asylum seekers with bonds so they can be released, and providing legal aid for those who need it.
The governor’s office says the final cost of the trip will be released after the entourage returns. Flights, hotels and other on-the-ground expenses will be paid for by the California State Protocol Foundation, one of several nonprofits that have stepped in to relieve the taxpayer of travel costs for gubernatorial trips since the 1980s. Staff salaries will still be picked up by the state.
But some worry that the foundation serves as a vehicle for interest groups to curry favor with the governor.
Business, labor and other interests donated $1.7 million to the foundation at the behest of Gov. Jerry Brown over the course of his last two terms. The largest donors included political action committees representing real estate agents, building trade unions and the California Chamber of Commerce.
The governor’s office has not yet responded to questions about who’s donating to the foundation to cover his travel expenses. All contribution made to the foundation at the behest of the governor must be made public within 30 days.
SAN SALVADOR—Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife joke that they’ll return to El Salvador not on any state fact-finding mission, but instead to check out the legendary surfing.
The governor and Salvadoran President-elect Nayib Bukele share a keen appreciation for a venerable California tradition: the money-making potential of surf culture. Salvadoran officials and entrepreneurs hope to promote their country’s beaches as a way to foster tourism, and in turn diminish El Salvador’s reputation for poverty and gang violence. Newsom offers that branding and marketing experts in California’s tourism office may be able to help them with that.
But an entrepreneurial interest in surfing isn’t the only thing California and El Salvador have in common. Both share a general lack of enthusiasm for U.S. immigration policies in the Trump era.
As Newsom concludes a three-day trip here, he said he’s coming away with a different impression than the one he originally held about the tiny Central American country. He found a country in transition with pockets of prosperity, thriving businesses and a high but decreasing homicide rate, but also a lack of opportunities for too many people.
“We’re involved in close to 50 lawsuits with the Trump administration, immigration is dominating our political discourse, and it’s impacting tens of millions of Californians,” he said. “For me not to understand what lies underneath that debate is almost malpractice on my part.”
Newsom has offered a series of explanations for the trip: to see first-hand the factors driving illegal immigration, to build partnerships between California and Central America, to “ignite a more enlightened engagement and dialogue.” And to offer the world a vision of American moral leadership that contrasts with President Donald Trump. “I think it’s important to let folks know that’s not our country,” he said.
Another possible motivation that Newsom has failed to mention, but which his critics have been eager to embrace: To further his own ambitions and boost his political brand.
Whether you count the trip a success or failure, of course, depends on which of those explanations you buy.
In search of tangibles
Newsom said California will be spending $75 million for legal services and other aid to undocumented residents, including mental health services for adolescent migrants; exploring whether the University of California system can build partnerships in El Salvador as it does in Mexico; and influencing tech, hospitality, industrial and yes, surf entrepreneurs to invest in the country.
Stabilizing El Salvador, he said, actually saves California money down the road.
“California pays the price of our failed immigration policy more than any other state in America,” he said. “California has more undocumented residents than any state of America.”
To try to remedy the poverty that fuels migration, Newsom joined Bukele and U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes in discussions about fostering economic development in the country, including surf tourism and helping coastal developers create an environmentally friendly zone by providing guidance on road construction, water clean up and zoning regulations.
Manes said tourism in El Salvador is up 14 percent this year, but it’s still relatively small. Of course tourism will remain a tough sell so long as the U.S. State Department violent crime travel advisory stays in effect.
“We want to work together to attract surf tourism,” said Bukele, who campaigned on the concept of building a surf city concept, after meeting with Newsom. “We want to invest in having our young people going into digital and making apps and developing technology, and California is the world leader in developing technology.”
Newsom said he does not intend to expend state money here, but promised to talk up business investment opportunities in El Salvador.
In the footsteps of globetrotting governors past, Newsom could help to strengthen the economic ties between El Salvador and California by setting up a trade mission. But with a mission of facilitating trade relationships, finding investment opportunities and promoting California products, these offices (which were shuttered in the mid-2000s due to budget crunches) were more about boosting California business than the economies of their hosts.
And in any event, it’s not clear how much good they do. One study estimated that the presence of these offices boosted California exports to the host country by a few percentage points—but that it was impossible to distinguish that change from the random ebbs and flows of international trade.
Who was paying attention?
The governor’s trip has caught the attention of people in certain circles: immigration rights activists, ticked-off Republicans and skeptical newspaper columnists.
But it does not seem to have made a big splash elsewhere. There were a few wire service articles, some coverage on Fox News and CNN, and a blurb on Axios, but the governor’s first official international trip can’t be said to have captivated the nation.
Nor was the coverage all positive. The state GOP stayed busy on social media calling out pressing state needs in Newsom’s absence. And Don Rosenberg—whose son was struck repeatedly and killed by an undocumented immigrant driver in San Francisco and who now heads the nonprofit Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime—made an appearance on “Fox & Friends” to accuse the governor of putting “illegal aliens ahead of American citizens.”
Yet Newsom’s trip failed thus far to earn so much as a mean tweet from the show’s number one viewer. That might be because the president has been busy this week tending to other immigration-related tasks—namely, clearing out the top ranks of the Department of Homeland Security, including its outgoing secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen.
Still, Dan Schnur, a former GOP consultant and University of Southern California professor, said the trip made for smart politics.
“Newsom has figured out very quickly that being the anti-Trump gives him national visibility, statewide stature and street credibility with the base of his own party,” he said. “More than any single day or news story, what Newsom is after is the cumulative effect to build an overall contrast. Unfortunately, Kirstjen Nielsen got in the way of this story.”
“This administration has been largely about painting contrasts between Sacramento and Washington D.C.,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Going to El Salvador “feels about as far away from something Donald Trump would do as possible.”
Newsom kept that contrast at the forefront throughout his trip. He put in a good word for U.S. foreign aid to Central America just as the president announced that he was cutting assistance to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to punish their governments for failing to curb migration to the United States. That comes despite reports from the administration’s own Agency for International Development, which found that foreign aid to El Salvador and neighboring countries helped reduce homicides, create jobs and lead to a number of high-profile corruption prosecutions—all of which, they say, helped “foster an environment where families can envision their futures in their home countries.”
“There are programs now to help address the gang violence in a much more systematic way that are producing results,” Newsom said. “US aid has made a profound difference and it only reinforces the absurdity, the stupidity of cutting that aid.”
The governor met with a former gang member who immigrated legally to the U.S. as a child, later joined a gang and then was deported. He had no family here and ended up joining the gang again, going to prison and finding Christianity—said to be the only reason gang members can leave a gang without being killed.
“There’s a story of redemption there, of hopefulness, of restoration, of a life that potentially has new meaning and purpose that can impact for better the lives of people in our country—not just in his own country,” Newsom said.
His tone may be directed at those back home as well—both Californian Salvadorans, who make up roughly a third of all Salvadoran-born residents in the United States, and Newsom’s broader political base.
That symbolic role as moral figurehead is in keeping with the role of governor, said Santa Clara University law professor Deep Gulasekaram.
What distinguishes an elected chief executive from other political leaders, he said, is that voters will often vote for a president or a governor because they “think, at least in part, that they might articulate a value system in line with the electorate.
“Certainly, for Donald Trump supporters, that’s what they think.”
SAN SALVADOR—California Gov. Gavin Newsom says he intends to help steer U.S. immigration policy just as former Gov. Jerry Brown influenced climate change policy—because California’s size, robust economy, diversity and political clout allow the state to “punch above our weight.”
“The one area that California should do more is on immigration policy,” he said today, the second of his three days on an official visit to El Salvador. He added that in the last decade, the state ceded that role to governors from more conservative border states. “That’s why I’m down here. That’s what I want to bring back in terms of the leadership that we want to advance for our state.”
The stated purpose of his trip: to learn more about the root causes driving Central Americans to migrate by the thousands in the last year and how California could help here or at home. It also raises his political profile as a counterpoint to President Donald Trump.
Newsom said he’s relying on the powerful California congressional delegation—which includes Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield—and local leaders to work from the bottom up to compel changes in the Trump administration’s hostile approach to immigration from places such as Central America.
“We have a unique responsibility and an opportunity to advance a different conversation,” he said after a session with humanitarian, LBGT and women’s rights advocates in the small town of Panchimalco, about an hour outside of San Salvador.
Since arriving on Sunday, Newsom has met with El Salvador’s President Salvador Sánchez Cerén; U.S. ambassador Jean Manes, a career diplomat stationed at the embassy since the Obama administration; Salvadoran mayors and community members.
While Newsom focuses on “managing up” to impact federal immigration policy in the remaining years of the Trump administration, humanitarian advocates on the ground in El Salvador say they hope he will have a positive impact on economic opportunities and human rights.
“He can influence the El Salvador government, the El Salvador legislators, to get them interested in how to reform workplace regulations, how to ratify codes that protect the rights of women,” said Montserrat Arevalo Alvarado. She’s executive director of Mujeres Transformando, an organization pushing for better working conditions for the 70,000 women who work in clothing factories, and make clothes mostly exported to the U.S.
“He can send letters, bring delegations and spotlight what is happening here,” she said. “I believe he can because our leaders go to the United States, too, and it’s important they listen to him.”
Traveling with only his wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, some staff and reporters—as well as a security contingent from the California Highway Patrol. The governor has received a warm welcome here.
People in the mountain town of Panchimalco were waiting for him when he arrived this afternoon. Salvadoran children adorned in colorful costumes danced and boys in white played traditional instruments—part of a cultural arts program intended to help the children avoid gangs and possibly create a path to future jobs through traditional artisanry.
Earlier in the day the Newsoms toured a deportee processing center, where Salvadorans who have been returned to the country are fingerprinted, interviewed and offered assistance if they need it. Several returned migrants shared their stories with the governor, telling him they left El Salvador because they lacked jobs and feared for their safety. Two were detained in Mexico and deported. A third made it to Houston, but returned after six months for a family reason.
The Newsoms and Carillo also met privately with President Cerén and the U.S. Ambassador Manes. Afterward the governor said little about the meetings, but did report that both expressed concern about having just met with Trump administration officials to discuss U.S. humanitarian aid—more than $450 million—only to have President Trump move to cut off the aid.
“The U.S. aid we are providing is making a real difference in people’s lives, not just from a security perspective but from an economic perspective,” he said he learned. “The absurdity of the U.S. would pull back from something that is working and would create a problem they want to fix.”
He said his wife asked President Cerén about the situation for women in El Salvador, and particularly women in prison. The issue is important to Salvadoran American leaders in Los Angeles, who say many women in El Salvador face incredible violence and abuse, which often propels their migration.
“Their American dream, as part of America, is to stay in their home and in their community,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Human Rights Los Angeles. “Nobody comes because they want to.”
Newsom didn’t disclose the president’s response.
When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week’s trip to El Salvador, he framed its purpose as part scholarly, part Good Samaritan.
“Let’s understand what’s happening,” he told an audience in Los Angeles late last month. “And let’s see if we can help!”
It’s that second part that has raised the obvious question from some quarters: Help, how?
Without its own diplomatic corps or immigration policy, California can’t start “issuing its own visas or have a different policy towards El Salvador than the United States,” said Deep Gulasekaram, a law professor at Santa Clara University. Newsom has described the trip as a “fact-finding” mission. Leaving aside the broader question of whether the governor needed to go to El Salvador in person to find those facts, what exactly are the policies that they will inform?
Immigration law—who gets to come into the country and who gets to stay—is the exclusive purview of the federal government. But the laws that apply to immigrants once they get here—the rights and benefits they enjoy and their relationship with local and state authorities—is something that Sacramento policymakers have plenty of experience weighing in on.
All told, said Gulasekaram, California likely has the “most integrative” policy toward undocumented immigrants of any state. Here are a few of the ways the Democrats who control California’s Capitol have diverged from the the Trump administration and responded to the migratory crisis on its southern border.
1. Money for migrants
Since taking office, Gov. Newsom has signed a bill to spend $5 million to fund nonprofits that provide emergency services for asylum seekers. His proposed budget includes another $20 million.
Much of the funding will go to a short-term shelter operated by the Jewish Family Service of San Diego, set up earlier this year to provide temporary accommodation for migrants released from border patrol custody without food, money or the ability to travel to their closest loved ones.
Those who operate the shelter in downtown San Diego—which also offers health screenings, logistical help and rudimentary legal assistance to migrants—estimate that they’ve served roughly 12,000 people.
The increase in financial aid is welcome news to immigration rights organizers such as Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties.
“It just goes to show what you can do when you have a state that’s willing to respond, willing to be innovative, and willing to take some responsibility even though technically, they could just point the finger and say this is a federal problem,” she said.
2. Status-blind Medi-Cal
Medi-Cal, the public health insurance program for low-income Californians, covers qualifying children up to the age of 18 regardless of their immigration status. Adults are still barred from accessing most of the state’s subsidized health insurance programs. Researchers at UC Berkeley and UCLA estimate that roughly 40 percent of California’s uninsured are undocumented immigrants.
The governor is hoping to change that. His budget proposal includes a plan to expand coverage to undocumented Californians under the age of 26.
Sen. María Elena Durazo, a newly elected Democrat from East Los Angeles wants to go a step further. She has proposed a bill that would make every low-income Californian eligible for Medi-Cal, regardless of immigration status and age. Last year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that such a proposal would cost $3 billion per year. And some Republicans in Congress have already taken umbrage at Newsom’s proposal. Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy declared earlier this year that he would push legislation to block California, adding: “It’s crazy for California liberals to provide free health care to anyone in the world who can sneak across our border. Taking care of the most vulnerable Americans should be our priority.”
3. A state agency
Assemblyman David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat, has introduced a bill that would create a California Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Agency.
The state already has a Director of Immigrant Integration and provides an array of services for undocumented immigrants. But under Chiu’s proposal, the agency would be responsible for coordinating all of these services across local, state and federal partners.
4. Legal help
For two years, the state has provided funding for nonprofits that provide legal services for undocumented immigrants in California. These funds are meant primarily to help those who came to the county as children apply for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, though in some instances the funding has been used to help other undocumented immigrants fighting deportation proceedings or applying for asylum.
Earlier this year, the governor proposed $75 million for immigration-related legal services. That includes a little over $1 million for UC students and their families.
5. Sanctuary state
The most controversial—if not necessarily the most consequential—of California’s immigrant-related laws, the 2017 law puts limits on how much state and local law enforcement officers can cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
The law does not apply to state prison employees who might coordinate with U.S. immigration agencies hoping to deport a convicted felon. But it does prevent a police officer, sheriff or highway patrolmen from inquiring about a person’s immigration status, detain someone solely at the request of federal immigration agencies or otherwise act as an immigration authority.
Those details aside, it’s been one of the fiercest battles in the many-fronted political war between Democratic California and the Trump administration. Just a month after the president’s inauguration, Trump threatened to cut off federal funding over was then only a proposed law. Sacramento and Washington have been fighting it out in court ever since—although it also has fierce opponents within California as well, including sheriffs in more conservative counties.
SAN SALVADOR: As Gov. Gavin Newsom touched down in El Salvador today 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 today 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.
Today 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 today, 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.”
SAN SALVADOR: Whenever Wendy Carrillo returns to El Salvador, she can’t help wondering what her life would have been like if civil war had not driven her family out.
“It was an incredibly violent time in El Salvador,” Carrillo said. “My mother made a very courageous decision that she would go to the U.S. and seek asylum, and was eventually denied. But she stayed anyway because she understood that she had to make choices for herself and for her family.”
Carrillo’s mother worked as a babysitter, saving money for three years to bring her to the U.S. At age 5, Wendy said goodbye to her best friend and her school, and accompanied her grandmother—first on a plane to Mexico City, and then on to Tijuana to hire a “coyote” to smuggle them into California.
“I remember I was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt because it was my favorite shirt—it was the 80s, so it had the red sleeves and the white center with Mickey Mouse, and my hair was in pigtails,” she said. “And I remember being told to just be very quiet. And I was in the backseat with my aunt, and we crossed.”
For the first 8 years of her life in Los Angeles she was undocumented, until then-President Ronald Reagan offered amnesty. She became a legal resident at 13 and a citizen at 21.
Today Carillo—a Democratic state assemblywoman representing northeastern Los Angeles—is back, the only Salvadoran state lawmaker, and the only legislator to travel with Gov. Gavin Newsom on his first official international trip. The new governor is visiting the tiny Central American country, he says, to learn “firsthand” the reasons why thousands of people from El Salvador and neighboring Guatemala and Honduras have been seeking U.S. asylum.
“Coming back here now in this new role as a member of the Legislature, I’m trying to figure out how we can help—and how we can understand not only the remnants of the civil war, which ended in 1992, but everything that’s happened since the economic downfall of El Salvador and the violence against women,” she said. “There’s so many issues that need to be addressed.”
Carrillo talked about her family story in the 10th floor lounge of the hotel where Newsom’s group is staying—and noted that it is in an affluent part of the city that is much safer than where most Salvadorans live.
The last time she came to El Salvador, with a delegation of state legislators last year, her meeting with outgoing President Salvador Sánchez Cerén felt like a homecoming of sorts.
“When he saw me, he said that he was very proud of me because I was a daughter of this country, and he gave me a big hug and welcomed me back home,” she said. “For me that was very emotional because had it not been for the war, my family would never have left.”
Her new life in California wasn’t easy. As a teen she dropped out of school, but a principal at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles pulled her back in, encouraging her to graduate and be a role model for her four younger sisters.
She went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California and become a radio host, and she handled communications for a Service Employees International Union affiliate. She lost a bid for Congress, but in 2017 she won a special election for the state Assembly in a race against 11 men.
“Part of what propelled me to run was this idea that Salvadorans needed a seat at the table, especially when a federal administration was saying that immigrants don’t deserve to be here,” she said.
Carrillo thinks about how differently her life story might have played out were she living it today, in the Trump era. “Would I have been separated from my grandmother and put in a cage and completely forgotten about? Which is happening to many children right now.”
That will be on her mind as she and Newsom endeavor to meet with the Salvadoran president, U.S. ambassador and humanitarian advocates. She’ll be thinking, she said, about how she and California can help here and back home.