Gavin Newsom visits tomb of St. Oscar Romero in El Salvador
Even as Gov. Gavin Newsom knelt to pray beside the tomb of St. Oscar Romero this week, some questioned whether he should be spending some of his early days in office visiting the Central American country of El Salvador.
I can confidently say, from my real-life experience, that the personal intervention of a California leader has the power to improve life in El Salvador and its neighbors, so that families with children don’t feel they have no choice but to flee. Gov. Newsom’s compassion and quest for understanding is an antidote to the punitive approach of our current president, whose plan to cut off aid would exacerbate poverty in Central America and cause more people make the dangerous journey north.
In 2014, my final year as leader of the California State Senate, I led a legislative delegation to El Salvador and Guatemala.
Our visit was prompted by concern for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors being detained at the southern border. This humanitarian crisis was similar to what’s happening today, with one notable exception: Our country had a president who cared and who recognized that families will continue coming as long as violence and poverty make life intolerable in their own countries.
The Obama strategy was to offer direct economic aid to El Salvador and its neighbors with the goal of alleviating the lack of job opportunities and the dangers posed by multiple gangs. After the aid was extended, El Salvador’s homicide rate dropped significantly – and the number of its citizens apprehended at the southwestern border fell from 71,848 in 2016 to 31,369 in 2018, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.
The Obama Administration imposed reasonable conditions in return for its help, including that the three countries accept reforms to tame corruption and make sure the money was spent to improve life for its citizens.
When my delegation and I arrived in El Salvador in July 2014, the Salvadoran legislature had refused to pass the anti-corruption bill the United States demanded. They viewed it as an unfair and patronizing demand, despite clear evidence of past corruption.
Their refusal put at risk $277 million of real help for innocent children and their families.
We met with the leader of the El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly and held a joint press availability afterword. I don’t remember whether I was asked or volunteered it, but I stated clearly that the assembly must pass the anti-corruption law. Thousands of Salvadoran children and families depended on the government’s compliance with a reasonable condition for massive U.S. assistance.
The next day, the front page of the lead El Salvador newspaper headlined my remarks. Soon after, the Legislative Assembly passed the bill and the U.S. State Department delivered the aid. That trip also prompted us to pass Senate Bill 873, which provided $3 million for legal aid for migrant children and strengthened protections for them as they worked their way through immigration courts.
My experience illustrates an important truth about the power of California, a major immigration destination and the world’s fifth-largest economy.
California’s governor is one of the most influential politicians in the country and the world. As the Trump Administration recklessly seeks to cut $500 million in aid to El Salvador and other Central American countries to punish them for the border crisis, his voice is needed more than ever to push back, to insist that a national and state commitment to improving the lives of our southern neighbors is in our national and state interests.
Gov. Newsom’s decision to show up, rather than firing off a press release from afar, sends a powerful message both to Trump and the people of El Salvador. I’m confident that even if we cannot today measure the actual impact, the governor’s trip will ultimately benefit thousands of lives, help ease this humanitarian crisis and ease California’s burden.