The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. sees migrant children as a problem. But once it welcomed them.

In the 1960s, Americans embraced unaccompanied children coming from Cuba in an attempt to score points against communism.

A sign reads “May God bless you on your journey” in Spanish at an Influx Care Facility (ICF) for unaccompanied children in Carrizo Springs, Tex., on Feb. 21, 2021. (Sergio Flores/For The Washington Post)
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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 signal that the Biden administration is not faring 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 topic remains a humanitarian and political problem 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 en masse. In 1961, the government inaugurated the Unaccompanied Cuban Children’s Program to care for thousands of minors coming from Cuba. U.S. journalists covering the event early on dubbed it “Operation Exodus,” which eventually became “Operation Pedro Pan” — a reference to the popular tale about a boy who could fly — as planeloads of children would soon be on their way. The program facilitated the transfer of more than 14,000 juveniles to the United States after Cuba’s revolution in 1959, making it the largest group of lone minors to enter the country at the time.

The children were part of the massive migration of 250,000 Cubans to arrive in the United States between 1959 and 1962 — and as “refugees,” in contrast to today’s “migrants,” they were seen as symbols of 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 underscored 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 respect.”

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

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

An Irish priest, Msgr. Bryan Walsh, had recently relocated to Miami to help grow a new diocese, and he found his calling in saving Cuban children. As the director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau (CWB), Walsh took advantage of his sprawling Catholic network and worked directly with the State Department, Florida child welfare agencies and anti-Castro Cubans to shepherd the children into care. Upon arrival, those without immediate family support in the United States — a group of about 8,300 minors, roughly 60 percent of all Pedro Pans — received shelter from the CWB and other religious, governmental and nongovernmental organizations. A portion of these children were placed in group homes and with foster families throughout the country, including in Helena, Mont., San Antonio and Dubuque, Iowa.

As Pedro Pans arrived in their new communities, some locals feared that there might be communists among those arriving. Others asked why taxpayers should shoulder the hefty financial burden of their resettlement.

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

Pedro Pans suddenly embodied two polarizing extremes: They were champion tokens of anticommunism, but also minority exiles frustrating the White-majority nation. In the end, they negotiated identities that could not be separated from their value as political symbols.

An overall willingness to accept the children in the name of national security amid the Cold War ultimately topped all concerns, as did the desire to make good on the country’s tradition of sanctuary and freedom. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans wrote to the Children’s Program wanting to foster and even adopt kids they had not met. Adoption was prohibited, but fostering children became a reality for many.

After learning about the Pedro Pans in a magazine, one woman from Lime Springs, Iowa, said she and her husband yearned to “help those who must flee Communism” and that their “community and family would be greatly enriched by having children from a different 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 arrived, Washington spent $50 million on “Freedom Flights” between the countries from 1965 to 1973 to try to make families whole again. By 1966, 90 percent of the children under the care of the CWB had rejoined at least one parent. Years later, in a study of over 400 Pedro Pans conducted by Yvonne Conde, only 7 percent reported negative associations with the program. Conversely, nearly 70 percent used words like “stronger,” “tougher” and “self-reliance” to describe the attributes they now associated with themselves as a result of the program.

Pedro Pans, who are now in their 60s and 70s, once again find themselves enmeshed in political vitriol surrounding children. In September 2021, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) sparked a row with the Miami Catholic Archdiocese when he issued an executive order that curtailed the ability for Florida agencies to care for undocumented migrants, including children. Four months later, Archbishop Thomas Wenski denounced the move as hypocritical, arguing that the state opened its doors to Cuban children decades ago and should do the same for unaccompanied minors in the present day.

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

Presently, migrant children are rendered invisible and relegated to the status of a national problem rather than an opportunity — but so were many Pedro Pans, at least initially. However, that cohort grew into a catalogue of success stories, aided by federal and state assistance and everyday American altruism. Pedro Pans have come to exemplify what is possible when the United States harnesses its bountiful resources and makes good on its storied tradition of refuge for the world’s most vulnerable people.