How Soon America Forgets: Operation Pedro Pan And Unaccompanied Child Migrants

Today, the ongoing debate on immigration is led by images of migrant children in cages or pods with politicians on both sides either calling it a “surge,” a “crisis” or part of regular migration patterns. The Democrats are blaming the Trump administration and the Republicans are blaming Biden. However, all seem to believe that unaccompanied minors arriving at America’s doorstep today is a new phenomenon.

How soon America forgets.

Because of the Cuban Revolution and the geo-politics of the Cold War many parents did the “unthinkable”. They sent their children to America not knowing where the children would end up because of their “desperation” for seeking a better life for their children.

Between 1960 and 1962, 14,000 Cuban children were airlifted from Havana to the United States. It all began when Fidel Castro ousted Flugencio Batista in 1959 during the Cuban Revolution. Fearing the communist-leaning Castro regime, middle-class and elite Cubans began to look for ways to leave Cuba.

The Catholic Church facilitated the exodus of economically advantaged children out of Cuba under Operación Pedro Pan, or Operation Peter Pan in English. The Catholic Church arranged for the children’s living accommodations when they arrived in America. When possible, the Cuban children were placed with family members. Others were placed in agencies, orphanages and group homes all over the United States. About half of the Cuban migrant minors were placed with family members by the Catholic Welfare Bureau with the other half ending up in foster homes.

The first stop for many of the Cuban children were temporary shelters where they waited for long-term living arrangements. The temporary locations were in Florida, near Miami.

One of the temporary shelters, Camp Matecumbre, was 35 miles south of Miami.

It was “fiercely” overcrowded and often flooded when it rained.

At the camps, the children were provided a Church-run education.

The Catholic Church advocated for full assimilation into the American culture. Because the Church controlled the children’s education and living arrangement, it wielded much power over them.

The first waves of Peter Pans were mostly from the higher social Cuban class. Ethnically they avoided being classified with other Latinos, preferring to keep their Cuban identity within the “white” social class. About 60% of the Peter Pans were teenage boys sent to America by their parents to avoid the Cuban military draft.

In small flights of about twenty children, the young Cuban migrants arrived weekly in Miami. Who paid for the flights and who arranged for them remains mired in controversy.

The Cuban exodus is generally divided into two phases: the 1960’s were where wealthy, predominantly white Cubans left the island and the 1980’s where the Mariel Boatlift were made up of working-class and typically non-white Cubans.

The true history of Operation Pedro Pan remains unknown as much of the program’s documents remain classified. What is known is distorted by the inherent bias of those telling their oral histories.

However, history seems to agree that the operation was mainly a Catholic Church mission.

Operation Pedro Pan was born from unaccompanied Cuban children being found in Miami by welfare workers. On November 22, 1960, the Cuban Children’s Program was created in Miami to “care for unaccompanied Cuban refugee children”.

The difference today between the Cuban Peter Pans and the minors at the border today is that Cuba was the boogeyman of the Cold War and it made sense to save the little Cuban children. Today, the migrant children aren’t fleeing communism. Instead, like their Cuban brethren, they are looking for a better life.

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