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. Operation Pedro Pan history
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
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
According to a recent article by the National Catholic
“…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.
There is much discussion about the meaning of marriage in our society today. Arguments rage as divorce and single parent rates rise. Women and children are often left without proper support and protection as the role of fathers is questioned and devalued. In the May-June issue of Celebrate Life Magazine, in time for Mother's and Father's Day celebrations, I reflect on my mother's struggle with mental illness and my parents' dedication to a faithful marriage "in sickness and in health".
(L to R) Frank & Alice O'Keefe, Constance & Francis Maloney, Helena & Thomas Maloney
A beautiful video about Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene's Flowers, who is willing to speak the truth with love about God's purpose and intent for marriage, despite lawsuits and persecution. I'm proud to work for and stand with Barronelle!
Stand with Barronelle to defend religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and the freedom to speak the truth with love and mercy about the meaning of marriage and family, which is the most beautiful earthly reflection of the love of Christ for His Bride, the Church! (Ephesians Ch. 5)