Democracy Dies in Darkness

Made by History | Perspective

The U.S. has tried to reunite separated families before. It didn’t go well.

Even when reunited, some families are never the same.

June 26, 2018 at 6:00 AM

A mother migrating from Honduras holds her 1-year-old child next to a U.S. Border Patrol agent Monday near McAllen, Tex. (AP)

Now that the Trump administration has stopped separating families, the government must figure out how to reunite more than 2,000 children with their parents. But as a past attempt to reunite thousands of Cuban children with their parents shows, that will be difficult, if not impossible. Some children will be reunited with their families after long waits, only to find that family dynamics have changed and a new chasm separates parent from child. Some will never reunify at all.

We know this because of the U.S. experience with Operation Pedro Pan (officially, the Unaccompanied Cuban Children’s Program). Between 1960 and 1962, more than 14,000 unaccompanied children arrived in the United States as part of the program, which was sponsored by the Miami Catholic Diocese, the State Department, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), and a host of state and nonprofit child welfare agencies. Cuban parents had put their children on flights to Miami, certain that their separation would be short-lived, lasting only until U.S. intervention or a civil war removed Fidel Castro from power.

This hope proved wildly optimistic.

The Cuban Children’s Program was the brainchild of Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, an Irish priest who had recently embarked on a new calling in Miami. The first children arriving under his authority landed in Miami on Dec. 26, 1960. They were taken to St. Joseph’s Villa, where they lived for two months. Soon other children trickled in.

The State Department gave Walsh blanket authority to issue visa waivers to all children between the ages of 6 and 16, although there was also evidence of parentless toddlers in transit. Older children needed special clearance by U.S. authorities before admission to the program.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower allocated $1 million drawn from the Mutual Security Act, which was used to found the Cuban Refugee Emergency Center in Miami. John F. Kennedy inherited this humanitarian challenge and embraced it. He created the Cuban Refugee Program (CRP) under HEW, which earmarked money for resettlement, monthly relief checks, health care, job training and food distribution.

Children without immediate family support in the United States — some 8,300 minors — received group and foster care through religious, governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Children were placed according to religious affiliation. Because most of the kids were Catholic, they became wards of the Catholic Welfare Bureau. The bureau in turn contracted individual agencies across the country for resettlement.

For children, the experience was traumatic. Many parents had told their children that the trip north was a scholastic opportunity. Some did not find out they were leaving until days before their flights. Common to many “Pedro Pans” is the agonizing memory of the moments they were waiting inside the transparent glass holding room in the Havana airport, known as “la pecera” (“the fishbowl”), where they saw their relatives for the last time while waiting to board the airplane.

Unclaimed children were first housed in “transitional shelters,” designed to be a temporary solution until a permanent location was established. Several sprouted and shriveled over the years. Children were segregated according to age and gender. Nights were regularly pierced by the wails of newcomers calling out for their parents. The camps were at best inhospitable and at worst uninhabitable. Some lacked sufficient showers and toilets. At one shelter, army tents were used as classrooms.

While children received benefits such as health screenings, immunizations and formal education when possible, the camps were unpleasant, sometimes awful, places. Different forms of violence permeated the shelters, group homes and foster homes. Hazing was frequent. There were hefty disciplinary rules. Corporal punishment by administrators was common.

Unclaimed children were soon scattered across the country. Over 5,000 children moved outside Florida, landing in 200 cities in 48 states and U.S. territories. Although the practice was to keep siblings together, some were separated for a time. The children’s experiences made headlines. Residents in Farmers Branch, Tex., opened their newspapers to a photograph of a Cuban girl wearing a cowboy hat, fully resettled thanks to Christ Methodist Church.

A fair number of children from stable homes were thrown into institutions for minors with histories of delinquency and parental abandonment. On at least one occasion, children were redirected to facilities that were not properly certified by child welfare agencies. There were also numerous allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Instances of alleged misconduct against children perpetrated by administrators, priests or foster parents led to lawsuits.

All of the children experienced anxiety and insecurity, sometimes fleetingly, other times for prolonged spells. Making the trauma worse, children were not permitted to process their emotions. They were anti-communist heroes, who Americans assumed should be joyous and grateful but who in reality often grappled with swirling emotions provoked by feelings of abandonment and a disorienting new culture. Many also confronted racism for the first time.

Younger children suffered more psychological hardship than older ones, whose emotional resources and maturity helped them grapple with the changes. They all forged on, but the ordeal was not the brief separation many of their parents had promised.

Parents faced myriad obstacles in trying to reclaim their children. Ever-changing rules in Cuba resulted in lengthier approval times. Even after obtaining an exit visa, one could be rebuffed at the airport, sometimes multiple times, because of an arbitrary bureaucratic glitch.

After the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, air travel between the two nations ceased. Parents were required to travel through a third country such as Spain or Mexico to rejoin their children. These nations came with their own rules and waiting periods.

In fall 1965, Fidel Castro opened the port of Camarioca to those wanting to leave Cuba. For a month, boats transporting family members crossed the Florida Straits. In December, President Lyndon Johnson and Castro made reunification a priority, launching the Freedom Flights, which between 1965 and 1973 brought nearly 300,000 refugees, including parents in search of their children, to the United States.

But entering the United States did not guarantee parents instant reclamation of their child. Before releasing minors, local authorities examined the condition of the home and the general impression of the family. There were cases when one or both parents had landed in the United States but were not immediately reunited with their children because the Catholic Welfare Bureau did not know they were in the country.

Though in the end most Pedro Pans did reconnect with one or both parents, for some it took years. Their reunions were bittersweet. Some children confronted an insurmountable chasm between themselves and their parents. Exile ages a person, and children grew up quickly and unpredictably in their new homes. Roles between children and parents reversed. Pedro Pans were the ones to conduct the business of the house, because they knew English and the new country’s cultural machinations. Some lost their fluency in Spanish, making communication with parents hard.

Others hesitated to rejoin their guardians. Rejecting one’s family could be psychological defense against the fear of losing their parents again. For some parents, this meant a horrific experience of losing their children twice: first in Cuba and again in the United States. Some children did not see their parents for decades, and some not at all. Five-and-a-half years after the program began, between 5 and 10 percent of children had yet to reunite with at least one parent.

Today, nearly all Pedro Pans affirm that their parents’ decision to send them to the United States was the right one, and the results have been positive for their adult lives. Their parents gave them something that Cuba never could. Yet they could never do the same thing to their own children.

They also still carry the trauma of separation. Upon first landing, every day was one of uncertainty and confusion. Although most rejoined one or both parents, family cohesion was never the same. The childhood innocence they had before flight was never regained.

Each day the Trump administration delays reconnecting families adds to the trauma of children and the dissolution of bonds necessary for their livelihoods. We can see it happening already: As one attorney visiting a detention center reported, all one mother could understand when she was permitted to talk to her bawling 7-year-old daughter was “Mom, you don’t love me, why did you leave me?”


John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco is associate professor of American studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is completing a book on Operation Pedro Pan.

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