MIAMI | Repeating the slogan “Children, yes! Politics, no!” a number of Miami business and community leaders joined voices with Archbishop Thomas Wenski to ask Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to stop pursuing anti-immigrant policies that hurt both children and Florida’s economy.
The group voiced their views during a press conference held Feb. 10, 2022 at the archdiocesan Pastoral Center, responding to an executive order issued by DeSantis in December that would deny license renewals to centers that shelter unaccompanied minors in Florida. The order affects 16 centers, among them Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh Children’s Village, administered by Catholic Charities, whose roots go back to the 1960 Pedro Pan exodus of children from Cuba.
“Today we're gathered together because of the situation of the unaccompanied minors and the governor's executive order, and also some legislation in the Florida House and Senate that would affect adversely immigrants here in the state of Florida,” Archbishop Wenski said.
The archbishop referred to a statement DeSantis made during a Feb. 7 meeting with now-adult Pedro Pans at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami. The governor called it “disgusting” to compare unaccompanied minors arriving today from Central America to those who arrived from Cuba in the early 1960s.
“This was a new low in the zero-sum politics of our divisive times. Children are children — and no child should be deemed ‘disgusting’ — especially by a public servant,” the archbishop said.
Mike Fernandez, a Cuban-American businessman and the founder of IMPAC Fund, an organization that works to protect family unity and the rights of immigrants, noted that the word “disgusting,” used by DeSantis, “is an ugly word…Well, let me tell you what I think is disgusting: A proposed heartless policy towards immigrant children (who are) defenseless and vulnerable. It's simply repugnant.”
He also labeled as “shameful” DeSantis’ affirmation that the Cuban children who fled the island decades ago are somehow better than the children arriving today from Central America and other countries.
“I assure you that these children are not inferior in any way. They want to have a similar impact than we did when we arrived decades ago,” Fernandez said, adding, “The children we're referring to could have been ours.”
In his statement, Archbishop Wenski decried as “disappointing” the lack of solidarity displayed by some Pedro Pans toward children facing a similar situation today. “Even while recognizing the good care afforded them by Catholic Charities 60 years ago, they begrudge that same care being extended to migrant children today. Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, the revered ‘father’ of the Operation Pedro Pan children, is rolling over in his grave.”
He pointed out that the success of the Pedro Pans was made possible by the “freedom and opportunity of this great land,” proof that “magnanimity rather than mean-spiritedness is a ‘best practice’ in resolving our immigration challenges.”
His views were corroborated by Tony Argiz, a Pedro Pan, IMPAC Fund board member, and well-known businessman who founded one of the top-35 accounting firms in the nation, Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra.
Argiz, who arrived as a 9-year-old, praised the support he received from both the Catholic Church and the U.S. government, whose “common sense immigration policies allowed me to become what I am today.”
“The parents sending their kids today are just like my parents. They simply want their children to be safe and live free in a free democracy,” Argiz said. He asked Florida’s governor not to shut down the institutions that provide crucial care for immigrant children, especially because immigration has “really powered our economy.”
For his part, Eduardo Padron, another Pedro Pan and president emeritus of Miami Dade College, said “the current policies being considered in Tallahassee today are ill advised and totally misguided. Especially worrisome to me is the effort to eradicate the shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children by refusing to renew operating licenses. This should never happen in America.
“It is our moral duty to protect these children,” Padron continued. “They have already endured enough suffering. Let's not allow these children to be used as a political football. Let's stop playing politics with immigrant children.”
Elena Muller García, another Pedro Pan who worked 25 years with Catholic Charities of the Palm Beach Diocese, arrived in Florida at age 13. She said she feels the angst of parents today “who are compelled to send their children to safety thousands of miles away from home. I feel the homesickness that the children must feel today, arriving alone as I did then.”
These children should be welcomed, she said. "Although their circumstances are different, they have the same needs, or maybe more needs, than I did 62 years ago.” She urged DeSantis not to “close the doors of this great state of Florida on them. Children, yes! Politics, no!”
Father Reginald Jean-Mary, pastor of Notre Dame d’Haiti Mission in Miami, said the governor’s decision “shows the face of a dictatorship of indifference in America,” a country founded on the principles of solidarity, compassion and dignity.
“What you are doing is wrong,” the priest told the governor. He joined the Pedro Pans in asking the governor to reconsider his proposals because “these children are the tomorrow of our community and our society.”
Maria Antonieta Diaz, founder of the Venezuelan American Alliance, noted that more than six million Venezuelans have left their country because of Maduro’s communist regime, and most of them are dispersed throughout Latin America. She asked DeSantis to reconsider not only for the children but for all the Venezuelan immigrants who come here soliciting asylum and applying for TPS (temporary protected status), hoping to reunite with families and friends in Florida while they await the resolution of their cases.
“Gov. DeSantis is trying to divide the victims of communism between good and bad — which tells us everything. For him it’s all politics. I beg the governor to stop these anti-immigrant policies and keep children safe and families united,” Diaz said.
Felice Gorordo, son of a Pedro Pan, board member of IMPAC Fund and an entrepreneur, asked the descendants of Pedro Pan and everyone else to rally behind Catholic and community leaders’ call for solidarity with innocent immigrant children. He urged them to lobby the governor to put aside politics and revoke his executive order, and to instruct the legislature to withdraw the proposed legislation —SB1808 and HB1355— that would prohibit state government from entering into contracts with businesses that transport undocumented foreigners.
Tessa Petit, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, noted that Floridians are facing a massive crisis due to the astronomical rise in housing prices, with no consumer protection, “and we have not yet made it to the other side of the pandemic.”
“You'd think our legislators would do their jobs, serve the public, and promote legislation that actually protects all Floridians,” she said. “Instead, they are fabricating a crisis at the expense of the lives and welfare of children, creating fear and hate in the hearts of our communities and, most of all, damaging our economy.”
For his part, Peter Routsis Arroyo, executive director of Catholic Charities, said, “Our license will soon expire, and unless it's renewed, unless there's some sort of understanding between the governor's office and the feds, it's possible that we will no longer be able to carry out our mission.”
“Catholic Charities is committed to serve those unaccompanied minors that come to us by providing a safe and nurturing environment,” Routsis-Arroyo continued. “Over 60 years we've been doing this. It is a part of our mission. It’s who we are.”
Also speaking during the press conference: an unaccompanied minor from Honduras who expressed his gratitude for finding shelter at Catholic Charities’ Children’s Village until he was reunited with his mother in Miami.