Who We Were

When Kids Crossed the Border with the U.S. Government’s Help

In the 1960s, Operation Pedro Pan Brought Children Like Me Out of an Unstable Cuba

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The images in recent weeks of minors crossing the border, unaccompanied and scared, fleeing violence and uncertain futures in their home countries, many seeking their relatives already in the United States, brought back memories of my own journey here in 1961 at the age of 6 on a plane filled with children. The Cuban Revolution my parents had supported had abandoned its promise of democracy. Schools, including the one I attended—Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, near our home in La Vibora—had been shut down. A U.S. invasion had failed; many of our friends had been arrested, and too many summary trials led straight to the firing squad. The killing of Albertico Campaneria, a 17-year-old family friend, tipped my parents towards exile.

As in the case of the Central Americans crossing the border today, there were no preexisting legal channels by which the United States could accommodate us. The U.S. Embassy in Havana had been shut down. Congress had not authorized massive immigration. Popular opinion about Cuban exiles was divided, with those opposed concerned about foreigners changing American ways at taxpayer expense. Still, the president of the U.S. and federal agencies involved in the war against Castro created, through executive powers, classified visa-waiver programs. One of these was aimed exclusively at minors. Through this program, dubbed “Operation Pedro Pan” (after Peter Pan, the flying boy in Sir J. M. Barrie’s novel), anyone under 16 could enter the United States with a mimeographed letter signed by a sponsoring Catholic priest. Children, unlike adults, were not seen as a potential security risk. It became one of the quickest ways to leave Cuba. Once here, papers would be filed on our behalf to claim our parents and, if they passed a security check, they too received waivers. Mine arrived four months after I did.

In a year and a half, more than 14,000 unaccompanied minors made it to the United States.

Like me, many of the Pedro Pans had relatives here, and most others were under the care of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, a predecessor of Catholic Charities. In 1962, the immigration doors for Cubans were shut, and more than 8,000 minors were left to spend years without their parents.

As camps in the Miami area filled, minors were sent throughout the United States to foster homes and Catholic-run orphanages. These could be harsh, often separating siblings and censoring the kids’ mail. Worse, there were cases of physical and sexual abuse; minors were punished when they reported it. Little is known about the conditions in the homes of friends and relatives. In the best of circumstances, children suffered the effects of prolonged separations from parents. Eventually flights resumed in 1965, and most families were reunited.

Operation Pedro Pan was a result of the strategic and propagandistic exigencies of the Cold War. We became symbols of communism’s horrors, much like the thousands of Vietnamese children airlifted under Operation Baby Lift at the end of that conflict in the mid 1970s.

But the specter of communism was not the only reason for the program. It was also fueled by the civilized notion that children are innocent, and that their care leads to a better society. Unlike adults, they can still be molded into future respectable citizens. Examples include the more than 120,000 children who at the end of the 19th century were shipped from urban areas to Midwest farms in what became known as the Orphan Trains. A few decades later, Native American children were also taken from their families and placed in boarding schools in order to civilize them. Their parents were deemed racially inferior and thus incapable of raising their children right. In both cases, instead of being saved, these children and young people suffered family separations.

Recent immigration debates have shown that this well-intended, if flawed, paradigm still holds power. The Obama administration’s policy to defer deportation for young people, as well as the various iterations of the proposed Dream Act to benefit undocumented children seeking to pursue higher education, is philosophically rooted in the narrative that children can be “saved” from their backgrounds.

While communism has faded, new threats, particularly from drug-trafficking violence in Central America, are fueling a new exodus. It includes children in search of parents who for the same reasons have already come to the United States. Today I worry that, faced with this generation of refugees fleeing poverty and violence, we have two inadequate default responses. One is not being as hospitable and humanitarian a society as we were when I arrived in this country. And the other will be the temptation to create yet another program that results in family separations.

In the years shortly after Operation Pedro Pan, Congress added family reunification as a cornerstone to U.S. immigration policy. It was a guideline that recognized the role of families in stabilizing the lives of young people, particularly young immigrants. Today we should be responding to this as a humanitarian crisis, and as an opportunity to reclaim our place in the world as a safe haven for those fleeing violence, oppression, and poverty, much as we were during Operation Pedro Pan. But this time, let’s not separate children from their families.