SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — On the first day of his unprecedented trip to El Salvador Sunday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom seemed to relish his role as a global foil to President Donald Trump, declaring that he came here to deliver “a counter-narrative” to what he called the president’s “toxic and repugnant” anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Pushing back against domestic critics who say the governor of a state has no business visiting a foreign country to investigate the root causes of migration, Newsom told KCBS Radio that it’s his “responsibility” to do just that. “I think it’s important to let folks know” that Trump does not represent all Americans, Newsom said. He just “happens at this moment to be president.”
The governor, a Democrat who’s only been in office since January, said making El Salvador his first official international destination “matters a lot. It sends a message. There’s a substance to it, and a symbolism as well. The rhetoric is so toxic coming out of the White House, and it impacts people here in a very real way. And I think having a counter-narrative, which is one that respects the human condition…matters.”
Newsom arrived in San Salvador on Sunday morning. He and his wife, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, toured the city’s Catholic cathedral, visiting the tomb of assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was canonized as a saint and a martyr by Pope Francis last year. The Newsoms met with San Salvador Mayor Ernesto Muyschondt and his wife before sitting down with the small traveling press corps for an extensive interview.
Newsom is the first sitting California governor to visit Central America. Unlike the overseas trade missions of his predecessors, this is a policy-driven trip, which Newsom calls a “fact-finding mission” to learn more about why so many Salvadorans and other Central Americans are fleeing their homelands to seek asylum in the United States.
“How do you understand California without understanding the Northern Triangle?” Newsom asked, referring to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and noting that California has the world’s largest population of Salvadoran expatriates. “I’m trying to understand California…(Immigration) is the issue that defines so many other issues…I think I have a responsibility to understand what’s going on down here.” Newsom will meet with Salvadorans deported by the United States while here, as well as with the country’s outgoing president, its president-elect, and human rights leaders.
When word came during the first hours of Newsom’s visit that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had resigned, and that sources told CBS News it was part of a shakeup to pursue an even tougher line on immigration, Newsom’s initial response was one word: “Wow.” Shaking his head, he wondered “How much more hard-line can you go? How do you dial up the rhetoric?”
He blasted the president’s persistent demand for a border wall, his on-again, off-again threats to close America’s southern border, and his reported request that the Customs and Border Patrol stop allowing Central American migrants to request asylum.
“These are legal asylum-seekers. Legal asylum-seekers. These are not people scaling walls,” Newsom said. “The biggest story is not what’s happening in Mexico…the biggest story on immigration in the United States of America is Donald Trump and the Northern Triangle, and El Salvador specifically, and that’s why we’re here.”
California Republican leaders have scoffed at Newsom’s Central American junket, saying he should focus on the problems at home, including poverty in the state’s own Central Valley, and that it shouldn’t take a foreign trip to figure out why people migrate.
But Newsom said he can learn things “on the ground” that he couldn’t possibly learn “if I read about it in Time magazine. You feel something when you walk around…you have to feel something, you have to touch something, you gotta get a sense of things, and so it’s not an intellectual exercise. And it’s about human beings, so it’s a very emotional exercise. There is sort of a humanitarian component to this that is very real and raw, and very much in the spirit and the zeitgeist of who we are as a state, a universal state. And we are a state of refuge. This is a state that’s brought in well over a hundred thousand refugees in the last fifteen years. California prides itself on that.”
Mayor Muyschondt (pronounced like “Mason”) welcomed Newsom’s visit. “It’s important for the governor to get a feel of what we’re doing,” to stem migration by easing poverty and gang violence, he told KCBS Radio. He said he hopes Newsom spreads the word back in America, to help convince the Trump administration not to cut off U.S. aid. “It would be much more profitable…for the U.S. government to invest in our countries and our region and opportunities for our people instead of investing in a wall. Cutting the aid will only make things worse for us, and will only make more people try to find opportunities elsewhere.”
Newsom’s visit is being paid for by the California State Protocol Foundation, not by taxpayers. In a country with rampant street crime and kidnappings for ransom, it’s being conducted under extremely tight security, with a small band of staffers and only five traveling reporters, including KCBS Radio’s Political Reporter Doug Sovern. The security team is keeping details of the governor’s daily itinerary a closely guarded secret and barring reporters from tweeting until the entourage has left each location. The group will return to California Wednesday.