Pedro Pan kids, unaccompanied minors not equal, DeSantis says

Pedro Pan kids, unaccompanied minors not equal, DeSantis says

Surrounded by Cuban migrants who came to Florida as children through Operation Pedro Pan, Gov. Ron DeSantis slammed critics of his immigration orders, including faith leaders and some other Pedro Pan migrants.

During a roundtable discussion on Monday at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, DeSantis said comparing the 1960s initiative that allowed over 14,000 children from Cuba to settle in the U.S., to the arrival of unaccompanied migrant children into the state under the Biden administration, was “disgusting.” He argued that Pedro Pan children were fleeing a communist regime with the endorsement of the U.S. government.

“There’s a lot of bad analogies that get made in modern political discourse, but to equate what’s going on with the southern border…with Operation Pedro Pan, quite frankly is disgusting,” said the governor at the Pedro Pan exhibition at the museum.

The roundtable comes as immigration advocates, former Pedro Pan kids, and faith leaders have spoken out against DeSantis’ recent immigration orders, including a rule he issued in December in which he mandated state regulators not issue or renew licenses to federally funded shelters that house unaccompanied immigrant children. Twin bills being considered in Tallahassee are targeting transportation companies that move undocumented immigrants to Florida on behalf of the federal government.

The visit from DeSantis on Monday illustrates the political influence that Pedro Pan Cubans continue to wield in Miami for Florida Republicans — but the back-and-forth also exposes the ideological rift on immigration among Cubans who arrived as children under the program in the ‘60s and those who welcomed them. At the roundtable, for example, there were no Pedro Pan Cubans who opposed DeSantis’ policy on housing unaccompanied minors in the state.

Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, a longtime immigration advocate, wrote a damning editorial titled ‘Why is governor going after children?’ in which he likened the unaccompanied migrant minors arriving today through the border with the Pedro Pan children.

The Catholic church has had a long history of sheltering migrants. Between 1960 and 1962, Father Bryan Walsh coordinated Operation Pedro Pan, which brought thousands of Cuban youth to the U.S. through special visa exemptions the federal government granted. Parents in Cuba feared that the government of Fidel Castro, who had just risen to power, would indoctrinate their children as part of the Cuban Revolution and take their parental rights away.

Catholic Charities, the charitable branch of the Archdiocese of Miami, manages the longest-running shelter in the state for migrant children who leave their countries without their parents, the Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village (also known as “Boys Town”) in Miami. Today, it houses up to 50 unaccompanied children, a number that was reduced because of COVID.

“They are not much different from those Cuban children of 60 years ago. The desperation that has led the parents of today’s unaccompanied minors is not unlike the desperation that motivated Cuban parents 60 years ago,” Wenski wrote in his editorial.

Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez attends a roundtable discussion at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami’s Coral Way neighborhood on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. MATIAS J. OCNER [email protected]

The DeSantis administration has defended his executive order by saying that the needs of Florida kids must be prioritized. DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw, who has called the resettlement of migrant children in Florida by the Biden administration a “human-smuggling operation,” argued that what the federal government pays shelters to house unaccompanied minors could prevent the state from competing to secure housing and services for Florida children.

Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez dismissed the comparison in a statement to the Miami Herald and called it “intellectually dishonest.”

“Operation Pedro Pan was a short-term legal exodus that was federally approved and funded and Catholic Church-administered,” she said.

Maximo Alvarez, trustee at Operation Pedro Pan, Inc., and a speaker at the 2020 Republican National Convention, assured the roundtable’s audience that the governor had the support of Pedro Pan kids, and that “we are going to die supporting” DeSantis. Operation Pedro Pan, Inc. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that connects Pedro Pan children who are spread out across the world.

“Don’t dare, ever, compare what is happening now because what they’re trying to do is to destroy you because you are fighting for us, you’re fighting for the state, you’re fighting for the children that are coming over here,” Alvarez said to DeSantis, in tears.

Alvarez said he was angered by other prominent Pedro Pan Cubans, which included Miami business leaders Tony Argiz and Aida Levitan, for signing on to a letter rebuking DeSantis’ policy targeting shelters that temporarily house unaccompanied minors.

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Maximo Alvarez, with Operation Pedro Pan, Inc., speaks during a roundtable discussion at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami’s Coral Way neighborhood on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. MATIAS J. OCNER [email protected]

In the midst of a reelection campaign — and widely held theories that he’s considering a potential 2024 presidential run — DeSantis has sought to cast himself as the lead opposition to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, including deploying dozens of Florida law enforcement officers to the U.S. border with Mexico, a mission that has so far racked up a $1.6 million bill.

DeSantis has pointed out that inviting migrants to Florida unchecked costs the state money, and he has made reference to some examples of criminal suspects who are in the country illegally. Asked what crimes his administration is referring to regarding the migrants being transported to Florida by the federal government, DeSantis said his administration’s focus is on deterring more migrants from coming to Florida by cutting ties with the companies transporting migrant children to the state.

According to a report by Politico, the state has so far found no contracts with transportation companies transporting migrants.

A long lineage

The children who came through Operation Pedro Pan were taken in by foster families, shelters and relatives in Miami and elsewhere in the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis shuttered commercial air travel between the nations and abruptly ended the program in 1962. While the children were a small slice of the first post-revolution migrant wave to the U.S., their impact in public life was outsized, according to Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

“As many of its participants often claim, Operation Pedro Pan was one of the largest [if not the largest] exodus of children in the history of the United States and perhaps in the Western Hemisphere,” Duany wrote in an email to the Miami Herald.

At public hearings in the Florida Legislature, advocates have read the testimony of former Pedro Pan kids who do not back the DeSantis policy and the pending legislation.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, and Attorney General Ashley Moody attend a roundtable discussion at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami’s Coral Way neighborhood on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. MATIAS J. OCNER [email protected]

Mobilizing across mediums

Wenski is one of many Florida religious leaders speaking up about DeSantis’ immigration policies amid growing concerns that the measures will harm migrant youth. They are writing letters, penning op-eds, and speaking up in the Legislature.

Reverend Joel Tooley, lead pastor of Melbourne First Church of the Nazarene, spearheaded a letter-writing effort to DeSantis. The Jan. 21 letter emphasized that the signatories lived their faith by serving the vulnerable children and that they were worried the governor’s rule would force them to “choose only one group” of youth to help.

“The thing about Gov. DeSantis is that he describes himself as a man of faith, right? And so we’re appealing to him, as a man of faith, as a father, and as a leader of the state of Florida,” Tooley told the Miami Herald.

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Archbishop Thomas Wenski poses with the Tariq family, Catholics from Pakistan who entered the U.S. as refugees in May 2016. Ana Rodriguez-Soto

He described the individuals who had signed the letter as a “wide-sweeping, multifaceted representation” of faith groups in Florida. As of Feb. 4, the letter had 293 signatures. To date, Tooley said, the coalition has not received a reply from the governor.

“I would be happy to receive a call from the Governor’s Office and reason together,” Tooley said in a text message, adding that he is noting growing interest from ministerial groups throughout the state on the matter.

Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, spoke at a recent hearing in a Florida House committee. He read a joint statement from Latino evangelical church leaders and his organization that likened DeSantis’ rule and the pending legislation as “religious persecution and restriction on our freedom to worship.”

“It is a faith act, an act of worship when we place these children and help them,” said Meyer before reading the statement.

This story was originally published February 7, 2022 6:58 PM.

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Bianca Padró Ocasio is a political writer for the Miami Herald. She has been a Florida journalist for four years, covering everything from crime and courts to hurricanes and politics.

Syra Ortiz Blanes covers immigration for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. Previously, she was the Puerto Rico and Spanish Caribbean reporter for the Heralds through Report for America. She has a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. If you want to send Syra confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. You can also direct message her on Twitter and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.

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