Unaccompanied Children: 21st Century Pedro Pans?

Many urgent and critical events – in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Israel, to name just a few – are currently capturing national attention. But the story that has piqued my interest the most is the tale of the thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America and Mexico who have crossed into the United States this year. It reminds me of Operation Pedro Pan.

For readers unfamiliar with Operation Pedro Pan, a little history: Between 1960 and 1962, Cuban families, fearing indoctrination by the new leftist government, decided to send their children to the United States. These children – referred to as “Pedro Pans,” a play on “Peter Pan” – were sent unaccompanied but with the promise of soon reuniting with their parents. More than 14,000 unaccompanied children made the trip from Cuba, only 50 percent of whom had family members in the United States. It was the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the western hemisphere – back then.

Today, U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimates that 77,200 children will be apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2014 alone, including some 59,000 children from Central America, completely eclipsing the number of Pedro Pans from the early 1960s. A UN Office of the High Commission for Refugees study published this spring found that only 36 percent of the unaccompanied immigrant children interviewed had at least one parent in the United States. Like Pedro Pans, most of these children will not see their parents for a long time, if at all.

Many of the children have left their countries to reunite with their parents, and they’ve paid smugglers a lot of money to make that happen. But most of the children are also leaving violence and poverty back home. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have some of the highest murder rates in the world and local drug gangs control most of the neighborhoods from where these kids come. These countries don’t have much to offer their youth apart from poverty and indifference.

Operation Pedro Pan was a coordinated effort by Catholic charities and the State Department, and there were plans in place to accommodate the unaccompanied children from Cuba. Today’s children from Central America and Mexico are not so lucky. Right now, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are fighting over funding and blaming each other for the issue at hand – while these children wait in detention centers where there aren’t even enough beds for them.

Under current law, Border Patrol is required to take child migrants who aren’t from Mexico into custody, screen them and transfer them to the office of Refugee Resettlement (out of the Department of Health and Human Services). HHS is then tasked with finding a suitable relative to whom the child can be released, or putting the child in long term foster care. At least half of the Central American children should qualify for some form of humanitarian legal status. Migrant children may not qualify for Deferred Action, but many can qualify for asylum.

Yet while Democrats talk about accommodation, the GOP is planning to fast-track deportation for these children. We should not be arguing about deportation and how fast it should happen. Instead, we should be talking about giving these young people the opportunities and tools they need to succeed, and the protection they have traveled thousands of miles to seek.

There are countless reports of Pedro Pans becoming productive members of American society. Some fine examples include former Florida Republican Senator Mel Martinez and our Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce CEO, Otto Merida. If we give these new unaccompanied minors a chance, we can find the next great entrepreneur, scientist, teacher or even elected official. They would be better off here than merely returning to the violence and poverty that awaits them in their home countries.