As debates rage about how to respond to the flood of some 50,000 unaccompanied children on our Southern border, a look back at recent history reveals a solution that was successful in easing a similar, albeit smaller, crisis.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. government worked with the Catholic Church to implement an emergency assistance program that came to be known as “Operation Pedro Pan”. The result was the successful resettlement of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children sent here by parents seeking to protect them from state-enforced communist indoctrination and the threatening Cold War missile crisis. The problem of unaccompanied children came to the attention Fr. Bryan Walsh, a young priest at Florida’s Catholic Welfare Bureau, when a teenage boy, the first of many, was brought to him for assistance. Realizing that unrest in Cuba was leading to a growing number of such children, Fr. Walsh and the U.S. government began their collaborative efforts. The government provided funding and waived visa requirements for the children, while Fr. Walsh coordinated their placement and care. About half of the children were united with family members upon arrival, while eventually over 7000 were placed in care. When the numbers overwhelmed available resources, Fr. Walsh networked with 100 Catholic Charities agencies in 35 states to place these children in foster homes and state-approved group homes. The children were not placed for adoption as the goal was to reunite families. Within just a few years over 90% of these children had been reunited with their families.
One of largest resettlement efforts in the nation occurred in the Yakima, Washington area, where Fr. Desmond Dillon was then the Director of Catholic Charities. In this small and poor Catholic Diocese, Fr. Dillon often did not have enough money to pay his staff of twelve employees. Yet he accepted and found placements for 165 children, along with several families and adults. During his retirement years at St. Joseph’s Church in Kennewick, Washington, I served as one of Msgr. Dillon’s caregivers and learned about the resettlement of the Cuban children, some of whom kept in touch with him nearly 50 years later. Msgr. Dillon made an impact in the lives of these 165 children and they never forgot him. He died recently at the age of 99. At his funeral, Fr. Argemiro Orozco recounted the story of a chance meeting with one of these former refugees, who was inspired by Msgr. Dillon to enter the priesthood himself.
The children entering our country now will have lifelong memories of a different sort. Now, rather than cooperation, we have a government that apparently wants to eliminate Christian charity in favor of expensive and ineffective federal programs. The Catholic Church is encountering obstacles to ministering to these children, most of whom are Catholic; many traumatized by their journey.
According to a recent article by the National Catholic Register:
“…the federal government has not yet allowed the Catholic Church and its charities to serve the needs of the unaccompanied minors being kept by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Missionary of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande said she is working on getting the proper clearances and procedures to get the children spiritual support, counseling and a more humane environment.
But she expressed concern that the federal government did not seem as willing to collaborate with churches and charities as they did in the late 1980s during the last border crisis of migrants fleeing Central America.
Said Sister Norma, “I don’t have the solution, but if it worked then, why can’t it today?”
It seems this crisis could be quickly defused with the common sense cooperation of times past but is that the goal of the current administration? Or are these children being warehoused, and the Church excluded from assisting, for political effect? Rahm Emanuel, Pres. Obama’s former chief of staff, once said, “You never let a crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity…” Echoing this perspective, Nancy Pelosi said at a recent press conference, “This crisis, that some call a crisis, we have to view as an opportunity.”
President Obama has announced his intent to bypass Congress in shaping a response to the crisis, but this is not the pathway to good legislation. Many of these children were sent on their perilous journey because of a misunderstanding of the President’s previous executive action, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.” Immigration reform is overdue but hasty unilateral action will only increase the chaos. We must not allow these children to be used as an opportunity to make a political point. Cooperative action to compassionately resolve the crisis is needed immediately to help the states that are being overwhelmed by the influx and to get aid to the children. All 50 states, united with countless churches and charitable agencies, must begin a new era of cooperation to care for the children and reunite families. The debate on immigration reform should be resumed only after this is accomplished.
If so much could be done so efficiently in the 1960s by enlisting the help of Catholic Charities from Miami to Yakima, we can surely put politics aside to care for these children now, with our expanded capacities of both government and church.
Let’s do it in memory of Msgr. Dillon and Msgr. Walsh.