By Taryn Luna
Gov. Gavin Newsom knelt on a pew Sunday in the lower level of the Catedral Metropolitana, quietly saying a prayer before the tomb of Saint Oscar Romero at the start of a trip to better understand the history of violence and oppression the country's hero for the poor died trying to end.
In a book filled with messages from dignitaries who toured the site before him -- former President Obama made a symbolic visit in 2011 -- Newsom said he wrote that when he was a young Catholic, he never imagined he would visit the martyr's resting place as a governor of California trying to "modestly live out some of the values that Saint Romero practiced."
"I think right now you have a president that talks down to people in this country, talks past them, demoralizing folks living here and their relatives in the United States," Newsom said of President Trump. "I think it's important to let folks know that's not our country, that's an individual in our country, who happens at this moment to be president."
The governor chose the smallest country in Central America as the backdrop for his debut on the world's stage to observe its socio-economic conditions, which send tens of thousands of Salvadorans fleeing for the U.S. each year.
But the journey nearly 3,000 miles from the state he governs also affords Newsom a key political opportunity to counter Trump's immigration narrative to an international audience, a move that could boost his national profile for future campaigns and help position him as a progressive leader of the resistance.
Political insiders say Newsom is seeking to establish himself as a politician who rolls up his sleeves and works on the ground to find solutions for a crisis, contrasting his style with that of other Democrats who sound off about the president's policies from afar.
"He's trying to take into consideration a more humane approach by changing the narrative to the world, that the United States is not just filled with politicians who threaten people to get what they want and that he is willing to listen," said Douglas Carranza, chair of the Department of Central American Studies at Cal State Northridge. "I think [Democrats] are still looking for the speaker of that narrative."
When Newsom walked off the jetway Sunday at an airport named for Romero, he became what state historians believe to be the first sitting California governor to step foot on Salvadoran soil.
He announced his trip on March 28 in front of a half-dozen television cameras in Los Angeles hours after Trump tweeted a warning that he could close the southern border.
The day after Newsom's announcement, Trump said he planned to cut off over $500 million in foreign aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala as a punishment for migration.
"It belies common sense and good public policy," Newsom said of the president's foreign policy in Central America. "I'm not going to put up with it. And I'm not just going to act in accord and just send a press release in response."
A governor has little ability to address immigration, which is controlled at the federal level, and some have criticized Newsom's trip as a publicity play toward a campaign for a higher office in the future. The governor has said he won't run for president in 2020.
"If Trump wins reelection, Gavin Newsom will be the No. 1 candidate on everyone's list," said Mike Madrid, a political consultant who worked for Newsom's Democratic challenger, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. "This is all about raising his national profile, driving the issues matrix and positioning himself for future aspirations."
Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said the trip helps Newsom bolster his standing among progressives in the Democratic Party, who are sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and hostile to Trump.
"If he thinks he wants to be president someday, this is a rational thing for him to do," Pitney said. "He cared enough to show up -- that would be the sound bite. He cared enough to come to El Salvador."
The governor flatly denied that political aspirations motivated his trip in a conversation with reporters Sunday evening, saying he needed to "get a sense of things" on the ground.
"I do think it benefits the people of my state to have a deeper understanding and a different perspective than the one being pushed by the Trump administration," Newsom said. "I don't think you can be governor of California and not have that as a deep part of your portfolio and responsibility."
Immigrant advocacy groups hailed Newsom's decision to visit El Salvador -- a country with a population of more than 6 million that has been bypassed by other governors -- as long overdue recognition of the important bond between California and the country. The U.S. is home to nearly 1.4 million Salvadoran immigrants, 680,000 of whom live in California.
Newsom intends to meet this week with the incoming and outgoing presidents of El Salvador, talk with human rights groups, visit a holding center for deportees returning to the country and host discussions on gang violence and job training programs for youth.
"It's historical," said Carlos Vaquerano, executive director of Clínica Monsenor Oscar A. Romero, a healthcare clinic founded by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles. "I have met other governors in the past. I have never met a governor in the first three months of office who decided to go to my country."
It's common for California governors to travel to different parts of the world on trade missions to promote business interests in the state.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a frequent traveler who promised to be a "super-salesman" for California, visited Japan, Israel, Canada, Europe, China, Mexico and other countries during his tenure.
Newsom's predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown, took his first trip abroad to China two years after taking office in 2011. Brown later emerged on the international stage as the unofficial ambassador for the U.S. on the environment when Trump announced plans to pull out of the Paris Accord, and the governor traveled to more than a half-dozen nations to discuss climate change.
When visiting Latin America, most of the state's governors have chosen to promote trade and make alliances in Mexico. Some, including former Gov. Gray Davis, have made a point to travel to the country first and ahead of other international trips. Reviews of the state archives and newspaper articles found no evidence of a California governor ever visiting El Salvador.
Newsom said he chose El Salvador because of the large volume of people from the country seeking legal asylum in the U.S., ranking second only to China. The governor has also cited his familiarity with the Salvadoran population in San Francisco, where he was mayor from 2004 to 2011, and his recognition that immigration at the southern border is a complex issue that involves countries other than Mexico.
"The Northern Triangle is the new issue that we have to address and I think you can only address it by understanding it," Newsom said, referring to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. "We've spent a lot of time focusing on Mexico, trying to understand Mexico. It's time to put that same kind of intention in Central America. Let's start with El Salvador."
Newsom is traveling with First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), several staff members from his office and a personal security detail. The trip will be paid for by the California State Protocol Foundation, a nonprofit funded by special interests and formed to pay for gubernatorial excursions. The governor's office has declined to answer questions about the expected cost of the trip.
More than 20,000 Salvadorans began the process to seek asylum in the U.S. in fiscal year 2018. The two nations share a complicated history.
Romero was named archbishop in 1977 and quickly became a social activist and outspoken critic of the oligarchy in El Salvador after the murder of a fellow priest who advocated for the rights of workers. He earned international attention when he wrote a letter to then-President Carter asking the U.S. to stop funding the conservative anti-communist military, which has been linked to death squads that committed atrocities against the people of El Salvador during a 12-year civil war. A United Nations commission concluded that a Salvadoran army major gave the order to assassinate Romero in 1980.
Academics and historians blame the country's problems on the war, unlivable wages for workers, political corruption and the rise of violent street gangs, and say U.S. efforts to support the war and deport gang members back to El Salvador helped destabilize the country.
Carranza said that by visiting sites dedicated to Romero, Newsom is positioning himself as a champion for human rights and the Salvadoran diaspora in the U.S.
Many Salvadorans living in the U.S. hope Newsom's desire to better understand the root causes of migration will result in more state aid to programs in California that serve immigrants.
Newsom helped shepherd a bill through the Legislature to provide $5 million to organizations in the San Diego region providing shelter to asylum seekers and assist them in connecting with their sponsors in the U.S. He's pledged to approve an additional $20 million next year.
The governor is also proposing that an expansion of Medi-Cal, the state's healthcare system for low-income people, include eligibility for immigrants living in the country without legal authorization up to age 26.
At the news conference last month, Newsom discussed the possibility of opening trade offices in Mexico and Central America to foster new business developments. Others have implored him to consider ways to help attract companies to El Salvador.
Advocates hope the trip will allow Newsom to meet the people of El Salvador, understand their struggle and endear him to their cause.
"It's very different from talking to a professor than seeing it firsthand," said Carrillo, a Salvadoran immigrant. "Our connection as a state to the country is incredibly deep. If the governor and California can play a role in advocating for the necessity to continue foreign aid, I think that's one of the biggest things we can do."
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