Cuban immigration to the United States: how 14,000 children arrived

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What are immigrants for?

Unnecessary, say the wall construction brigade – which insists that migrants are criminals, moochers, parasites. Just as, among progressives, it is an article of faith that they are carriers of diversity, of cultural richness.

But there’s a way America has always found immigrants useful — whether the year is 2022 or 1962. Like pawns.

Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did not send 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last month because he thought they liked clam chowder. He wanted to make a point — at the expense of Democrats.

Sixty years ago, another administration — Democrat this time — also helped get migrants on planes. Also to score political points.

But the strategy, then, was precisely the opposite. The Kennedy administration was going to welcome the immigrants.

“Refugees had a completely different political significance than they have today,” said John Gronbeck-Tedesco, associate professor of American studies at Ramapo College in Mahwah.

“Operation Pedro Pan: The Migration of Unaccompanied Children from Castro’s Cuba,” his book, which arrives this month from Potomac Books (University of Nebraska Press), takes a fresh look at a harrowing chapter in Cold War history.

“What Kennedy wanted to project, in terms of image, is that we welcome the desperate of the world,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said. “Specifically, to fight communism.”

flight to freedom

More than 14,000 children, most between the ages of 6 and 16, were airlifted from Cuba to Florida in 1968 under a program administered by various child welfare agencies, chief among which is the Catholic Welfare Bureau, encouraged by the United States. government.

About half of them were settled with relatives in the United States. The others were given to orphanages across the country or placed in foster homes. One of the largest contingents ended up in Union City, New Jersey.

“The Program for Unaccompanied Cuban Children” was the official name. But one journalist dubbed it “Operation Pedro Pan”, and that’s what most people – including the refugees themselves and their descendants – call it today. “Operation Peter Pan”, a song by Tori Amos, depicts these newly created American children trying to put their old lives behind them forever. “In my new life, no place for a lost boy,” she sings.

“They were children, and they kind of became unwitting participants in some sort of larger Cold War struggle,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said. “They have become sort of anti-Communist heroes.”

A group of Pedro Pans arriving in Helena, Montana, in 1961

It’s a story that begins not with the US government, but with Cuban parents.

The 1959 revolution, Gronbeck-Tedesco said, was followed by a period of great fear and uncertainty.

Was the Castro regime permanent or would it be overthrown – perhaps within weeks – by a counter-revolution?

Could Cuba be communist? Castro hadn’t declared himself so soon, but wasn’t he terribly friendly with Khrushchev? And if Cuba became communist, what would that mean for education? What would that mean, in particular, for the church – given that most people in Cuba were devout Catholics and Communism was notoriously godless?

“A lot of people who have kids in parochial schools hear this propaganda, that Castro is going to take your kids and send them to Moscow and indoctrinate them with Communism,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said. “The parents are scared. They don’t think this revolution is going to last. The Americans will come in, or there will be an anti-Castro thing happening. So we’re going to send José and Maria to the United States for a short stay, a few weeks, and we will soon be reunited in Cuba.”

go alone

Beginning in 1960 and 1961, Cuban parents began putting their children—alone—on planes and flying them to the United States. Some were only 3 or 4 years old.

“Kids are starting to show up alone in Miami,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said. “A couple goes to a local Catholic church – Miami had just become a diocese. There’s a newly appointed priest named Bryan Walsh in Miami. These kids show up, and it quickly becomes his mission.”

Father Walsh (left), smiling, watches several Cuban refugee children in a transitional shelter in 1961

Walsh contacts the State Department in Washington. Children can come legally, he is told, as long as they have a student visa.

But when the United States Embassy and Consulate in Cuba closed in January 1961, there was no one left to do the paperwork. Walsh contacts the State Department again and is told that under the circumstances he can issue a “visa waiver” – a form that Walsh can fill out himself. A carte blanche, essentially, to bring in whoever he wants. And so the floodgates open.

“Ultimately, the government said we had to welcome these people in the name of our national tradition of sanctuary and because of our national interest in the Cold War,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

The Cuban revolution was of course not overthrown. With the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, pro and anti-Castro forces dug in. Most of the “Pedro Pan” children never returned to Cuba within weeks – or ever.

“This was the largest unaccompanied child migration to the United States until the Obama administration,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

One way ticket

There is irony in the story.

Cuban Americans, notoriously — and perhaps understandably, given their history — are among the most conservative of any American electoral bloc. Many (not all) of the Pedro Pans are opposed to the new immigrant groups coming here now, as the conservatives of the 1960s were opposed to their.

“Some say the Cubans of the 1960s are not like the children of Central America today,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said. Refugees are not the same as migrants, they would say.

Father Walsh (third from left, top) with Pedro Pans in 1961

“We were political exiles, they say. We were fighting communism. These kids today are economically desperate, some are gang members, some have drug problems. Those kind of generalities,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

There is also sadness in the story.

It is the story of children, some of whom barely go to school, exiled from a home and a family where most would never return.

A “Pedro Pan,” who came to the United States as a teenager, told Gronbeck-Tedesco he still thinks about the conversations with his father he never got to have. Sometimes he goes to Google Maps and looks at the house he grew up in. But he refuses, on principle, to return home.

“To do so would tarnish the memory of his father,” said Gronbeck-Tedesco, who spent several years of his post-graduate life in Cuba learning about the people and the culture.

John Gronbeck-Tedesco

“His father sacrificed so much to send him to the United States, and because the political system hasn’t completely changed in Cuba, it would be like a betrayal of his father,” he said. “And a betrayal of his Cuban-American identity. He identifies as an exile. And an exile cannot return to his own country until the policy that caused the exile changes.”

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