While these numbers are staggering, this is not the first time the United States has received unaccompanied children arriving in droves. In 1961, the government inaugurated the unaccompanied Cuban children program to treat thousands of minors arriving from Cuba. American journalists who covered the event earlier called it “Operation Exodus”, which eventually became “Operation Pedro Pan” – a reference to the popular story about a boy who could fly – because there would soon be planes of children on their way. The program facilitated the transfer of more than 14,000 minors to the United States after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, making it the largest single group of minors to enter the country at the time.
The children were part of the massive migration of 250,000 Cubans who came to the United States between 1959 and 1962—and as “refugees,” as opposed to today’s “immigrants,” 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 forced to flee to maintain their lives as single, self-sufficient human beings.” Kennedy emphasized that helping refugees was an important imperative of the Cold War. It was, as he wrote, out of “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 goals of the Cold War and more concerned with the safety of their sons and daughters. Anti-revolutionary propaganda circulated on the island warned that the state would revoke their parental rights and send their children to Moscow for communist indoctrination.
Almost everyone believed that the separation with their children sent to the United States would be short, and that families would soon be reunited in post-Fidel Castro Cuba.
Irish priest, Msgr. Brian Walsh, recently moved to Miami to help grow a new diocese, and he found his calling in saving Cuban children. As director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau (CWB), Walsh utilized his extensive Catholic network and worked directly with the State Department, Florida welfare agencies, and anti-Castro Cubans to get the children into care. Upon arrival, those without immediate family support in the United States—a group of about 8,300 minors, about 60% of all Pedro Panes—received shelter from the CWB and other religious, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations. Some of these children have been placed in group homes and with foster families across the country, including in Helena, Mont., San Antonio and Dubuque, Iowa.
When Pedro Panes arrived in their new communities, some of the locals feared that there would be communists among the arrivals. Others questioned why taxpayers should bear the heavy financial burden of their resettlement.
Race was also a factor in how Americans treated the new immigrants. They did not fall within the traditional American racial boundaries. “Latino” and “Hispanic” were not yet official classifications. Cubans could enjoy white privilege in some contexts, while dealing with racism in other contexts. At least one Pedro Pan who lives in Miami recalls bus drivers asking him to go to the back of the bus, as was customary for black Americans in the South. However, he attended all-white schools.
Pedro Panes suddenly embodied two extremes: they were symbols of anti-communism, but also minority exiles frustrating the white-majority nation. Ultimately they negotiated identities that could not be separated from their value as political symbols.
The overall willingness to accept the children in the name of national security in the middle of the Cold War ultimately overcame all concerns, as did the desire to fulfill the country’s tradition of the temple and freedom. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans wrote to the Children’s Program wanting to foster and even adopt children they had never met. Adoption was banned, but fostering children became a reality for many.
After learning about Pedro Panes in a magazine, one woman from Lime Springs, Iowa, said she and her husband longed to “help those who must flee Communism” and that “their community and family would be greatly enriched by having children in another world. Country.”
Operation Pedro Pan ended in 1962, although some unaccompanied children continued to arrive and receive treatment until the late 1970s. In addition to allocating money to shelter and care for the children until their parents arrive, Washington spent $50 million on “freedom flights” between States 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 been reunited with 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. In contrast, nearly 70 percent used words like “stronger,” “tougher,” and “self-reliance” to describe the qualities they now associate with themselves as a result of the program.
Pedro Panes, now in his 60s and 70s, once again finds himself caught up in political angst around children. In September 2021, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) sparked a row with the Catholic archdiocese of Miami when he issued an executive order that reduced the ability of Florida agencies to process undocumented immigrants, including children. Four months later, Archbishop Thomas Vaneschi denounced the move as hypocritical, arguing that the country opened its doors to Cuban children decades ago and should do the same for unaccompanied minors today.
The comparison drove a wedge between Pedro Panes. Some argued that the state should continue to protect young people, while others sided with DeSantis and drew differences between today’s young immigrants and the Cold War context of their transitions. In the eyes of those critics, they and their parents fought communism and appeared as political exiles.
Currently, immigrant children are becoming invisible and relegated to the status of a national problem rather than an opportunity—but so were many Pedro Panes, at least at first. However, this group has grown into a catalog of success stories, aided by federal and state aid and everyday American altruism. Pedro Panes has come to illustrate what is possible when the United States harnesses its many resources and capitalizes on its famous tradition of sheltering the world’s most vulnerable people.