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Why is governor going after children?

Archbishop Wenski's column for the January 2022 edition of the Florida Catholic

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What do Bishop Felipe Estevez, Father Juan Sosa, Father Jose Espino, former Senator Mel Martinez, City Commissioner Joe Carollo, business and community leader Tony Argiz all have in common? They were all unaccompanied minors, part of the famed Operation Pedro Pan that assisted over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children who arrived in the United States in the early 1960s.

Sixty years ago, parents did what was unthinkable — they sent their children alone and unaccompanied to the United States. They were desperate — and 60 years later, their homeland, their beloved Cuba, is still not free; 60 years later we know that their fears were not misplaced. Sixty years ago, an Irish priest, Father Bryan O. Walsh, along with many others, did the impossible: resettling 14,000 minor children throughout the United States and eventually reuniting most of them with their parents.

In the original story of Peter Pan, Peter and the “lost boys” lived in neverland —and never grew up. The boys and girls of Operation Pedro Pan have not only grown up — they’ve grown old. But thanks to the freedom and opportunity provided by this great country they have also built successful careers and raised families. They embody the “American dream.”

So does Alberto Carvalho, outgoing Miami-Dade Public Schools superintendent (who will soon leave for Los Angeles and greater challenges there). He arrived alone to the U.S. from Portugal shortly after he graduated high school — and as an undocumented immigrant worked menial jobs and learned English as he struggled to get an education. While working in a restaurant, he was befriended by Republican Congressman E. Clay Shaw, who helped him get a student visa. The Congressman told him: “One’s future tomorrow is not limited by their condition today.”

Sixty years after Pedro Pan, 40 years after Carvalho’s arrival, there are new waves of unaccompanied minors. In fact, our Catholic Charities in the archdiocese has taken care of many of them without interruption during these last 60 years. We have a facility in Cutler Bay that can house 80 kids.

Today these young people — boys and girls, infants to teenagers — are coming mainly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But 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.

And yes, these children do have parents. They are not abandoned street urchins. When I have celebrated Mass with them, the kids knew their prayers, they could sing the hymns. These are kids who were raised in homes where parents taught them to pray and took them to Mass.

Yet, now Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to stop all federal programs in Florida that serve these unaccompanied kids as well as services to Cubans (and Haitians, Venezuelans, etc.) released by the U.S. under its “parole” authority.

The governor’s executive order 21-228 is wrong; and the legislature would be wrong to compound his error with legislation (SB 1808 and HB 1355) proposed by State Senator Aaron Bean (Fernandina Beach) and Representative John Snyder (Stuart). What they propose would hurt vulnerable populations but also would end up hurting the citizens of Florida.

The conditions that produce successive waves of unaccompanied minors, the unspeakable crimes that are committed against them as they journey from their homelands to the Texas border, cry out for justice. But where is the justice in blaming and punishing the victims?

Sixty years ago, Operation Pedro Pan resettled 14,000 unaccompanied minors in the U.S. Their contributions to America show that magnanimity rather than mean-spiritedness is a “best practice” in resolving immigration challenges.

E. Clay Shaw, the distinguished, long serving, conservative Republican Congressman from Fort Lauderdale, had it right: “One’s future tomorrow is not limited by their condition today.”

Why does the Governor wish to deny these children a future of hope?

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