The United States views migrant children as a problem. But he once welcomed them.

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In September, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 11,900 ‘encounters’ with unaccompanied children along the border with Mexico, a sign that the Biden administration is not coping much better than its predecessors in stemming the arrivals of migrant children entering the country.

While President Biden has taken several steps to roll back President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated migrant children from their families — and in some cases, deported parents while their children remained in the United States — the subject remains a humanitarian and political issue for the White House. In 2021, Biden’s first year as president, an unprecedented 147,000 unaccompanied minors arrived at the southern border.

While these numbers are staggering, this is not the first time the United States has received unaccompanied children arriving in droves. In 1961, the government inaugurated the Program for Unaccompanied Cuban Children to care for thousands of minors coming from Cuba. American journalists covering the event at first dubbed it “Operation Exodus”, which eventually became “Operation Pedro Pan” – a reference to the popular story of a boy who could fly – as planes filled with children would soon be on their way. The program facilitated the transfer of more than 14,000 minors to the United States after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, making it the largest single group of minors to enter the country at the time.

The children were part of the mass migration of 250,000 Cubans who arrived in the United States between 1959 and 1962 – and as ‘refugees’, unlike today’s ‘migrants’, they were seen as symbols of the anti-communist heroism. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy wrote a letter to Congress, in which he pledged to support “those who are forced to flee to maintain their lives as individual, self-sufficient human beings.” Kennedy emphasized that helping refugees was an important Cold War imperative. It was, as he wrote, in “the political interests of the United States that we maintain and continue to enhance our prestige and leadership in this regard.”

Cuban parents who sent their children to the United States were less motivated by Cold War geopolitical goals and more concerned about the safety of their sons and daughters. Counter-revolutionary propaganda circulating on the island warned that the state would deprive them of their parental rights and send their children to Moscow for communist indoctrination.

Almost all believed that the separation with their children sent to the United States would be brief and that the families would soon be reunited in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba.

An Irish priest, Msgr. Bryan Walsh, had recently moved to Miami to help develop a new diocese, and he found his calling saving Cuban children. As director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau (CWB), Walsh took advantage of its sprawling Catholic network and worked directly with the State Department, Florida child welfare agencies, and anti-Castro Cubans to guide children to care. Upon arrival, those without immediate family support in the United States – a group of approximately 8,300 minors, or about 60% of all Pedro Pans – were housed by the CCB and other religious organizations. , governmental and non-governmental. A portion of those children have been placed in group homes and foster homes across the country, including Helena, Montana, San Antonio and Dubuque, Iowa.

As Pedro Pans arrived in their new communities, some locals feared that there were communists among those arriving. Others questioned why taxpayers should bear the heavy financial burden of their relocation.

Race was also a factor in how Americans treated newcomers. They did not fall under traditional American racial understandings. “Latino” and “Hispanic” were not yet official rankings. Cubans might enjoy white privilege in some contexts, while confronting racism in others. At least one Pedro Pan living in Miami recalled being asked by bus drivers to go to the back of the bus, as was the custom for black Americans in the South. Yet he went to white schools.

Pedro Pans suddenly embodied two polarizing extremes: they were champions of anti-communism, but also minority exiles frustrating the predominantly white nation. In the end, they negotiated identities inseparable from their value as political symbols.

A general willingness to accept children in the name of national security amid the Cold War eventually overrode all concerns, as did a desire to respect the country’s tradition of sanctuary and freedom. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans wrote to the Children’s Program encouraging and even adopting children they had not met. Adoption was prohibited, but the placement of children has become a reality for many.

After hearing about the Pedro Pans in a magazine, a woman from Lime Springs, Iowa, said she and her husband longed to “help those who must flee communism” and that “their community and family would be greatly enriched by having children from another country”. country.”

Operation Pedro Pan ended in 1962, although some unaccompanied children continued to arrive and receive care until the late 1970s. In addition to allocating money to shelter and care for children until their parents arrive, Washington spent $50 million on “freedom flights” between the country from 1965 to 1973 in an attempt to reunite families. In 1966, 90% of children in the CCB’s care had joined at least one parent. Years later, in a study of more than 400 Pedro Pans led by Yvonne Conde, only 7% reported negative associations with the program. Conversely, nearly 70% used words like “stronger,” “tougher,” and “autonomy” to describe attributes they now associate with themselves as a result of the program.

Pedro Pans, now in his 60s and 60s, once again finds himself entangled in the political vitriol surrounding children. In September 2021, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) sparked a feud with the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami when he issued an executive order that reduced the ability of Florida agencies to deal with undocumented migrants, including children. Four months later, Bishop Thomas Wenski denounced the decision as hypocritical, saying the state opened its doors to Cuban children decades ago and should do the same for unaccompanied minors today.

The comparison drove a wedge between Pedro Pans. Some argued that the state should continue to protect young people, while others sided with DeSantis and drew differences between today’s young migrants and the Cold War context of their families. own crossings. To these critics, they and their parents were fighting communism and portraying themselves as political exiles.

Currently, migrant children are rendered invisible and relegated to the status of a national problem rather than an opportunity – but that was the case with many Pedro Pans, at least initially. However, this cohort has become a catalog of successes, aided by federal and state aid and everyday American altruism. Pedro Pans came to illustrate what is possible when the United States harnesses its abundant resources and honors its tradition of refuge for the world’s most vulnerable people.

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