AP Pool Photo

Newsom Meets Migrants in El Salvador, Comes Away With "Renewed Vigor"

California Governor Hears Firsthand From Salvadorans Seeking "American Dream"

Doug Sovern
April 09, 2019 - 12:15 am
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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—One by one, they told Governor Gavin Newsom of California their stories, the same stories they shared with reporters before meeting the first sitting U.S. governor to visit their country.

Byron Melgar, 18, fled the San Salvador suburb of Mejicanos for the United States, crossing the border illegally to stay with his aunt in Houston, to escape gangs that pressured him to join, making him so afraid "I would never leave my house, never go out."

Sandra Monroy, 42, joined a migrant caravan last October "because we don't have a job. That is what is moving us, the lack of jobs. There are no jobs for us, to survive. That's why we had to leave."

Her nephew, 26-year-old David Escobar, was with Monroy in that caravan, seeking a better life in America. "Here, the struggle is day by day," he said. "We have to survive one day for the other." Escobar said gang extortion was so severe, he was forced to sell his family's cattle to meet the gang members' demands. "This country is upside down."

Bayron Melgar, 18, Sandra Monroy, 42 and  David Escobar, 26, met Gov. Newsom on April 9 and described their experience returning to El Salvador after trying to reach the U.S.
Provided to KCBS Radio by AP pool photographer
But none of these Salvadorans won the asylum they sought in the United States. After a one-month journey through Mexico, Monroy and Escobar were captured by Mexican officials and returned to El Salvador on a bus. Melgar came back home on his own, to help his mother, though he said he is already planning to return to the U.S. The three met Newsom, and spoke with reporters, at the center where El Salvador processes migrants who are deported by the United States or Mexico.

Newsom toured that facility Monday, hearing firsthand accounts of the migrant experience and meeting with officials from the United Nations' International Organization for Migration.

"They all aspire to the dream," Newsom told reporters. "Everybody seeks a better life. It's the story of our time. How do you begrudge someone for wanting something better or more for their children, for the people they love?

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Newsom came to El Salvador Sunday to learn the root causes of migration from Central America's Northern Triangle. After only two days here, he said he's already achieved his goal. "I feel very empowered," he told KCBS Radio. "When I come back home, I'm going to feel a renewed sense of vigor, but a deeper understanding than I could ever get, as someone suggested, behind a desk."

Newsom has faced criticism back in California for this trip, with some suggesting it's inappropriate for a governor to dabble in what would typically be the portfolio of a president, and that he didn't need to travel to El Salvador to discover that migrants are motivated by poverty and violence.

Though he insists his mission here is not political, Newsom is openly critical of President Trump's immigration policies at every stop. In the mountainside town of Panchimalco, a hamlet known for its indigenous culture, he and his wife, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, were treated to a performance of traditional songs and dances. Even there, while accepting gifts from the local mayor and music students, Newsom distanced himself from official U.S. migrant policy. "I want you to know," he told the audience at the cultural center, "that the words coming out of the White House in Washington D.C., they are not shared by the overwhelming majority of Americans, that feel very differently than the current occupant of the White House."

Gov. Gavin Newsom met with Salvadorans on April 9, 2019 who had been returned to their country after getting  turned away in Mexico or the U.S. in their attempt to get asylum.
Provided to KCBS Radio by AP pool photographer
President Trump's sentiments about the migrant caravans aren't shared by the deported Salvadorans, either. "He shouldn't point his finger at people," Escobar said, referring to Trump's frequent claim that many asylum-seekers are actually gang members masquerading as families. "In the caravans, there are not only criminals. There are children. There are children who are in the midst of violence, maybe by their own parents."

His aunt, Monroy, agreed. "People leave because they need to leave. It's not because we are members of a gang. People are leaving this country looking for the American dream."

Newsom also met privately Monday with the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Jean Manes, a career diplomat who came to this post during the Obama administration, and with outgoing Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren. He concludes his trip Tuesday with another long day of official events, including a roundtable on gang intervention and a meeting with President-elect Nayib Bukele.

KCBS Political Reporter Doug Sovern is on special assignment in El Salvador, part of a limited group of journalists that is traveling with Newsom.