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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.
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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.