SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — California Gov. Gavin Newsom arrived in El Salvador to learn about the poverty and violence forcing thousands to flee and demonstrate an alternative to what he called President Donald Trump's demoralizing rhetoric about the Central American nation.
He kicked off his four-day trip Sunday with harsh words for Trump, who recently moved to halt foreign aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and has mocked people seeking asylum amid a surge of families and children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. About 3,000 unaccompanied children and 12,000 family members from El Salvador have arrived since October.
"Right now you have a president that talks down to people, talks past them, demoralizing folks living here and their relatives in the United States," Newsom told reporters. "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."
Newsom, a Democrat who took office in January, chose El Salvador as his first international trip because California is home to both the United States' largest Salvadoran population and its busiest border crossing.
He visited the tomb of Saint Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran priest assassinated in 1980 at the start of the nation's civil war, because of his advocacy for human rights and the poor, a symbolic way to begin a trip that's designed to give Newsom a better sense of the deep social and economic challenges Salvadorans face.
Over the next two days, Newsom's trip includes meetings with President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes and President-elect Nayib Bukele. He'll also tour a reintegration center that processes Salvadorans deported from the United States and Mexico, see a cultural demonstration in a rural town, meet with human rights groups and discuss economic development and gang intervention.
Newsom said he's figuring out in real time what more California can do to help tackle the root causes of migration, namely deep poverty and gang violence. El Salvador is one of the world's most violent countries, with the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 exerting strong control. The minimum wage is just $300 per month.
Mayor Ernesto Muyshondt of San Salvador, the capital city, said he hopes Newsom can use his political influence to halt the cuts to U.S. aid, saying the cuts will halt the countries' progress and could cause more people to flee. He joined Newsom at the San Salvador cathedral where Romero is buried.
"I think if he can get a feel for our country and our challenges and opportunities, I think he can be a good spokesperson," said Muyshondt, a member of the country's conservative political party.
Newsom has fought the Trump administration on perhaps no issue as much as immigration, suing over the president's emergency declaration to build a southern border wall and pledging $25 million in state money to help asylum seekers.
The Trump administration has not commented on Newsom's trip. But Republicans in California have said the governor should be more focused on poverty back home.
"The tragic circumstances that drive migrants from their homes should remind us that we have people living in crushing poverty in our own communities. Our attention and resources should be focused there," Republican state Assemblyman Devon Mathis said in a statement.
Newsom pushed back on critics, saying immigration is a driving political and policy issue that affects California more than any other state.
"How do you understand California without understanding all the diverse cultures that make it the most diverse state?" he said. "It's fundamental, it seems to me, to governing a state. That's why I'm here in the first months."
While Newsom hopes to plant a counter-narrative to Trump, he is barely known in El Salvador, a country just over 6 million people.
Before Newsom's visit to the cathedral, people milled about on the Gerardo Barrios Plaza, a public square out front. Only one of a half dozen people who spoke with The Associated Press said they were aware the governor of California was coming to visit, and none knew his name.
Manuel Lara, 52, has family living in Los Angeles and said he learned of Newsom's trip from the news. Lara tried to come to the United States unsuccessfully in the 1980s and now works in construction in El Salvador. He makes $10 per day.
He said Newsom's trip was a good thing given Trump's threats to rescind aid.
Newsom said he hopes to show Salvadorans there's "a completely different conversation" happening in the United States outside of Trump's comments.
"There are people in the U.S. who think folks down here matter and we care to understand their plight and challenges and see if there's ways we can soften things," he said.
He said starting the trip at Romero's tomb, where he lit a candle and kneeled to pray, brought full circle his Catholic upbringing and some of his earliest political awakenings. At the time of Romero's assassination, the U.S. government was providing aid to El Salvador's military-led government during what would become a 12 year civil war.
"So much of my politics was shaped by those years and by the controversy down here," he said. Later, he added, "I never thought I'd be kneeling in front of Saint Romero as governor of California."