MIAMI — Several high-profile religious, business and community leaders denounced Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over his support for immigration measures they say hurt children as well as the state's economy.
“The actions being proposed, the law being implemented, is cruel," Mike Fernandez, a wealthy donor and former Republican, said at a news conference Thursday at the Archdiocese of Miami's Pastoral Center.
DeSantis has been sparring with the Biden administration over whether unaccompanied migrant children should stay at shelters in Florida until they can be reunited with their parents or other relatives.
In December, DeSantis ordered state regulators not to issue licenses to federally funded shelters that house unaccompanied migrant children. Two bills being considered would also bar the state from doing business with companies that transport undocumented migrants into the state.
“Governor, it is shameful for you to surround yourself with a few supporters earlier this week in Miami and claim that Cuban children who fled Cuba decades ago are any better than children arriving today from Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and many other countries," Fernandez said. "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."
Several Cuban Americans who spoke at the news conference came to the U.S. over 50 years ago as unaccompanied children in the early 1960s through Operation Pedro Pan, in which the U.S. government brought thousands of children from Cuba to the U.S. after Fidel Castro took over the country and installed a communist government. It was during the Cold War, and many parents fearing communist indoctrination sent their kids off.
The program, developed by the Roman Catholic Church in Miami and the U.S. government, settled the children across the country in foster homes and orphanages until they were able to reunite with their parents, sometimes years later, once the adults left Cuba.
“As we did before, this community should rise to the challenge and recognize that every child is a child with dignity, deserving care,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami. “But that is especially true for the most vulnerable among us, the unaccompanied minors that travel through dangerous, very difficult paths to reach freedom.”
Business and community leader Tony Argiz, who came to the U.S. through Operation Pedro Pan when he was 9 years old, became emotional describing the help he received.
"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. "I was poor, hungry and determined, and it helped me out quite a bit in life. But the church more than anything provided me that base. I was able to build a large accounting firm among the top 35 in the U.S. New arrivals today are bringing skills and ingenuity that our state needs to propel itself forward."
DeSantis defended his immigration policies this week at Miami’s American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, joined by several Cubans who were also part of Pedro Pan.
DeSantis said it was “disgusting” to compare the unaccompanied children arriving now to those who came through Operation Pedro Pan.
“We had people that were coming because they were fleeing a communist dictatorship that was persecuting them,” DeSantis said. “Those are not illegal immigrants. These are people that were sanctioned to come by the United States government.”
Immigration advocates argue that many of the children migrating to the U.S. are fleeing life-threatening conditions, including violence brought on by crime and corrupt governments, as well as natural disasters.
Eduardo Padrón, the former president of Miami Dade College and a renowned education leader, was 12 years old when he came to the U.S. through Pedro Pan. Later as an educator, he said, he has seen thousands of immigrant students, “many of them refugees, many of them also undocumented,” change their lives for the better through education.
The news conference included the American Business Immigration Coalition, its Florida chapter, IMPAC Fund, the Florida Immigrant Coalition and the Venezuelan American Alliance.
Argiz and others argue that anti-immigrant measures have a negative impact on the state’s economic base.
“We must support the immigrant communities that have really powered our economy in Florida. And it’s really what separates us from Europe,” Argiz said. “We’ve had an immigrant base, and our population hasn’t been decreasing. And our economy has been powered by the immigration that this country has had.”