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Like Cuba’s Pedro Pans, Today’s Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors Deserve Shelter

By María de los Angeles Torres

Operation Pedro Pan: Cuban children waiting in line to emigrate
Operation Pedro Pan: Cuban children waiting in line to emigrate. Photo credit: DFELIX

After a contentious campaign that ignited strong debate specially among Pedro Pans—Cuban children who came to the US unaccompanied in the early sixties—Governor DeSantis of Florida is poised to sign a new law effectively banning shelter for recent unaccompanied immigrant minors in the state fleeing violence in their homeland. 

Many Pedro Pans, including myself, believe today’s unaccompanied immigrant children are equally deserving of asylum while others of us have supported this law out of the false notion that Cubans are an exceptional case. But the facts speak otherwise, and the similarities between Pedro Pans and the children DeSantis plans to bus out of the state are revelatory.

In 1961, when I was six years old, my parents made the difficult decision to send me as part of what became known as Operation Pedro Pan. The Cuban revolution they supported had turned autocratic and violent. Schools, including the one I attended—Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, near our home in La Vibora—had been shut down. A US invasion had failed, many of our friends had been arrested, and summary trials often led straight to the firing squad. The killing of Virgilio Campaneria, a seventeen-year-old family friend, tipped my parents towards exile. Many unaccompanied minors today also face violence in their countries, including the possibility of being killed. Their parents, just like mine, make the heart-wrenching decision to send them abroad.  

Then, as now, there were no established legal channels by which the United States could accommodate us. Federal agencies involved in the war against Castro operated multiple classified visa-waiver programs skirting existing legal channels. One was aimed at minors and anyone under the age of sixteen, who with a mimeographed letter signed by a Catholic priest granting a visa waiver, were allowed entry into the US. This became the quickest way to leave. Once in the United States, papers would be filed on our behalf for our parents to receive waivers, provided they passed a security check. 

Over an eighteen-month period, more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children made it to the United States. More than half of us reunited with relatives here. Others were placed in the care of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, a predecessor of Catholic Charities. In 1962, immigration doors for Cubans were shut, and at least 8,000 minors already here were unable to reunite with their parents for years. 

Despite heightened national sentiment against communism at the time, popular opinion about our arrival was mixed and has remained so. As news of our secret immigration program leaked out, Congress received hundreds of letters from irate Americans complaining bitterly about spending taxpayer dollars on foreigners particularly paid through the Catholic Church. Others worried that we could be “communist spies sent to infiltrate the US,” and Miami politicians complained that we would “change the complexion of the City.”

Despite this pressure, three Presidents continued to give us shelter and, even more importantly, allowed us to “claim” our parents. Ours was a well-funded program; it reflected our nation’s ideals and generosity.

Immigration now has become a wedge issue that corrupts the very essence of the American experience, one that DeSantis and so many others have embraced. In contrast, Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which made family reunification the cornerstone of US immigration policy and, a year later, the Cuban Adjustment Act, legalized our status. This welcoming history begs the question that what makes us exceptional is the treatment we received, not the circumstances we fled.

Communism has faded as a national security concern, but new threats to hemispheric democracies, particularly from narco-traffic violence in Latin America and the Caribbean, are fueling an exodus of unaccompanied minors. It is shameful that many government officials, politicians, and even some former Pedro Pans, are willing to abandon the very same democratic societal values that led to our being welcomed in this country. 

Years ago, when Operation Pedro Pan group was under the leadership of its founder, Elly Chovel, conferences were organized in which we could debate different perspectives and share our memories, including the painful ones. In one such encounter, Olga Levy-Drucker, author and child survivor of the Holocaust who had been saved by Kindertransport, said to us that we all had a common past. I objected, saying that while the situation in Cuba was horrible, it could not be compared to the Holocaust. She thought for a moment and responded: There were differences, but that regardless of these, as children we had all experienced fear and we had suffered separations from our parents, and these shared human experiences were what brought us together. Unfortunately, this lesson was never learnt by Governor DeSantis and forgotten by some Pedro Pans.


About the Author 

María de los Angeles Torres is a distinguished professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at University of Illinois Chicago and author of The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children, and the Promise of a Better Future, Beacon Press.