April 28, 2021

Angels Unawares, a sculpture that represents the human story of immigration across time, recently visited Miami. It is on a U.S. tour before being permanently installed on the campus of Catholic University. 

Inspired by this trip, the Catholic University Institute for Latin American and Iberian Studies (ILAIS), University Advancement, and Barry University hosted a panel titled Immigration Family Separation: Past and Present on April 12. 

This discussion explored the impact of family separation on immigrant communities by examining the Cuban Children’s program known as Operation Pedro Pan. The program was an agreement between the U.S. State Department and Catholic Charities of Miami to airlift 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the U.S. from 1960 to 1962. 

“The arrival of the children from Cuba and their resettlement across the U.S. was largely facilitated by the U.S. Catholic Church — most notably Father Bryan O. Walsh, who directed the program from Miami with the cooperation of numerous Catholic organizations and individuals, and also coordinated with non-Catholic organizations around the country,” said Julia Young, associate professor of history at Catholic University and host of the panel. She introduced the panel moderator, Giselle Rios, professor of music and director of the Institute for Immigration Studies at Barry University, who is herself the daughter of a Pedro Pan refugee.  

Lived Experiences
The panel started with two Pedro Pan refugees discussing their experience coming to the U.S. Carmen Valdivia is a past president of Pedro Pan Group, Inc., and the executive director of the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora. Valdivia came to the U.S. through Operation Pedro Pan in 1962 with her sister at 12 years old. She stayed at a Florida city camp for three years before reuniting with her parents in 1965. 

“We were stripped from everything that we cherished in Cuba, so what we brought in our hearts is the work ethic our parents instilled in us, our faith, and the pinnacle of our achievements. These were some of the most important things we were able to bring with us from Cuba,” said Valdivia. She discussed her work at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora and her thoughts of today’s migration at the U.S. border. 

“The reason why Pedro Pan was different from migration today is because we had someone who made sure everything was organized and expected,” she said. “In any conflict the people on the front lines are the one who suffer the consequences and I feel the children are on the front lines with today’s migration.” 

Emilio Cueto, B.A. 1965, is a former attorney, and writer of several books on Cuban history and culture. Cueto came through Operation Pedro Pan at 17 years old. “At the root of Pedro Pan’s Operation and today’s migration is the immense love of mothers for the children,” said Cueto. “The mothers are the heroes of this story.” 

Unlike younger children who were involved in the Pedro Pan program, Cueto came to the U.S. as a teenager and understood why he was leaving Cuba. A high school graduate who came to the U.S. in 1961, he enrolled in Catholic University instead of being sent to a foster home like the other children. He didn’t reunify with his mother until 16 years later in Cuba. 

Cueto believes that part of the success of the program was that it was faith-based, ensuring children would end up in a family with a similar faith tradition to their own. 

“That is the major contribution of the Catholic Church to the program to ensure there would be at least a common element between the past and the future,” he said.

Migration and Trauma
The second half of the discussion included Sandra Barrueco, professor of psychology, and director of ILAIS, who highlighted her research conducting the first national representative study of its kind of young migrant children and their families in the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program. It found that one quarter of the parents across the nation were experiencing mild to severe depression, along with stress. 

While she notes there are significant levels of depression and trauma that need to be addressed, her research also examines resiliency of the migrant workers and what keeps families strong. 

“We found across the nation 100% of the migrant families said that dedicating themselves to their children’s future is what helps keep their families strong,” Barrueco said. “Ninety-nine percent of the migrants said their belief in God or their faith also helps keep them strong. Over 90% said faith is moderately or extremely helpful to them. And 97% of the migrant families said working hard to lead a better life for their children is what keeps them going every single day.” 

Her research includes examining how to improve the reunification process as about half of Latinx immigrants can experience some type of familial separation. Her former doctoral student and now colleague created an eight-session intervention to reunify families who have been separated and examined its impact in her dissertation. “Age matters and the narrative matters, if there’s a trauma in a family — having a shared understanding and dialogue of what happened and why this happened is important. The discussion and communication does relate to improved mental health functioning to the child and family,” she said. 

Martha Luz Vallejo, adjunct faculty member at Barry University and the director of Traumatologists Network, Inc., gave a clinical perspective of the kinds of trauma experienced by unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border.

“Trauma in a child disrupts everything that will come later,” Vallejo said. “It paralyzes the nervous system and interrupts the development of the brain for children as they grow with the trauma, unless there are very specific therapeutic interventions and love.” 

She explained how her clinical team uses the adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study, a scientific study in the U.S. that links greater adversity in childhood to a likelihood of a person facing mental health problems later in life. “The narrative in the U.S. is that these children are viewed as criminals crossing the border, and not viewed as children that are fleeing violence.” 

“According to immigration policy right now these children cannot get asylum or be legal in this country if we cannot show or prove their trauma how much they have suffered,” said Vallejo. “In the refugee world, there is a concept called triple trauma paradigm — these children experience trauma in their countries, trauma though their journey to the U.S., and trauma of being unwanted in the U.S.”

“We cannot treat these children so badly that they will not heal from the trauma,” Vallejo said. “These kids need advocates and people to speak for them because they are voiceless in the U.S.”

After the panelists spoke, the discussion took the audience questions. “Clearly the question comes to everyone's mind, can we afford so many people and pay so much for them? I appreciate the question, however, I think if you turn the word cost to investment, perhaps you can see the positive of it,” Cueto said. “The federal government invested $28 million in the unaccompanied children from Cuba. I would think it was a magnificent investment for the U.S. because by and large we have repaid in many ways not only economically but in the diversity we bring to the country. As an American I feel proud that so many people want to come here.”

Watch the event recording at https://vimeo.com/536797733