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Gov. Gavin Newsom pledges to help build up El Salvador to reduce migration

Taryn Luna, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

"The tourism commitment is real and tangible," Newsom said. "I think the economic opportunities, the investment opportunities are real, and getting some California industry, business interests to take a look at El Salvador is something that we're clearly going to pursue."

The governor said his time in the country changed his perspective on safety concerns. The U.S. State Department advises Americans to "reconsider" traveling to El Salvador, citing high homicide rates and the prevalence of crimes such as extortion, assault and robbery.

But in conversations with human rights activists, embassy officials, priests, former gang members, prison directors, anthropologists, political leaders and deportees, Newsom learned that crime rates have dropped steadily in recent years. The number of homicides in El Salvador declined by 50 percent over the last three years, but the country's 51 murders per 100,000 people in 2018 still ranked second in the world to Venezuela.

Salvadorans told Newsom that violence is mostly concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods controlled by gangs.

"I expected not to hear that from so many people, that the safety issues are over-highlighted," Newsom said, adding that he felt comfortable encouraging Californians to visit El Salvador while exercising caution.

Bukele said he hopes to work with the U.S. to change the advisory when he takes office in June. The World Travel and Tourism Council forecasts that 1.7 million foreigners will visit El Salvador in 2019.

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Newsom was careful to articulate that he did not plan to spend any state taxpayer dollars in El Salvador. His message is in some ways similar to the strategy of the federal government, which has directly invested hundreds of millions of dollars to support nonprofits promoting economic stability in the region through programs funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

USAID has said its efforts to improve educational opportunities, job training and private sector partnerships stimulated 22,000 new jobs and $153 million in sales and exports in El Salvador from 2011 to 2016. Illegal immigration from El Salvador to the U.S. at the southern border with Mexico also declined last year. Some USAID programs would be in jeopardy if Trump follows through on a promise to cut funding to the country.

Just as former Gov. Jerry Brown led the international debate on climate change, Newsom said he wants to steer the global conversation on immigration. Newsom said his predecessors ceded leadership on the issue to other border states and that California -- home to more than 10 million immigrants -- should take it back.

Newsom's trip to Central America was criticized by some as a publicity stunt for a politician with career ambitions beyond California.


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