California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a meeting at the Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador, El Salvador. AP Photo/Salvador Melendez
California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a meeting at the Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador, El Salvador. AP Photo/Salvador Melendez

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.”

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Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...

Elizabeth Aguilera is an award-winning multimedia journalist who covers health and social services for CalMatters. She joined CalMatters in 2016 from Southern California Public Radio/KPCC 89.3 where she...