Cuban Immigrant Youth Were Welcomed With Open Arms: Why Not Today’s DREAMers?

Jan 19, 2018
1:12 PM

In the year 2000, the city of Miami was embroiled in a scandal that had far-reaching implications, with some arguing that it cost Al Gore the presidential election, due to an angry Cuban electorate delivering George W. Bush the state of Florida by a margin of 537 votes.

The scandal was precipitated by the custody battle for Elián González, a young Cuban boy who was brought to Miami in a small aluminum boat with a faulty engine. When the motor of the boat gave out and the group of 12 Cubans in it were hit by a storm, water soon overwhelmed them and in the ensuing struggle, Elián’s mother drowned, but not before making sure that her son was placed in an inner tube for safety.

Elián and two other survivors were eventually rescued by two fishermen, who turned them over to the U.S. Coast Guard. Elián was afterwards released to his paternal great-uncle and was the subject of a bitter custody battle between his father, Juan Miguel González Quintana and his relatives in Miami, who wanted to honor the wishes of his deceased mother and have Elián stay in the United States.

Backed by the mostly conservative Cuban-Americans in Miami, Elián’s family in the United States fought against the Clinton administration to have him stay in this country. Ultimately, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the return of Elián to his father in Cuba, but his Miami relatives defied the court order until authorities raided the house where Elián was staying, and he was reunited with his father at Andrews Air Force Base. He returned to Cuba on June 28, 2000, as the relatives in Miami finally exhausted all their legal options.

There is another significant historical incident regarding Cuban youth immigrating to the United States. Between 1960 and 1962, over 14,000 Cuban unaccompanied minors came to the United States in what became known as “Operation Pedro Pan.” While the children initially needed visas to enter the United States, by January 1962, the U.S. Department of State announced that Cuban minors would no longer need visas to emigrate to the United States.

The termination of DACA, an executive action signed by the Obama administration that gave temporary legal status to over 800,000 undocumented youth who have lived in this country for most of their lives, and the subsequent battle over the Dream Act, legislation that would give permanent solution to them, begs the question: If Elián Gonzalez and the Pedro Pan Children deserved to stay in this country, why not the young DREAMers who have grown up here in the United States?

While some prominent Cuban-American leaders, with Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo coming to mind, have been very supportive and have taken bold action to push forward the debate on this issue, there are others who have largely been absent. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Mario Díaz-Balart are examples of Cuban-American lawmakers whose silence has been noted in the fight to protect these youths from deportation.

Considering the history of immigrant youth coming to the United States from Cuba, why wouldn’t the DREAMers deserve to stay in the only country they call home? Rubio and Díaz-Balart should remember the experiences of their very own community and fight to extend the same opportunities to the immigrant youth of today.


Thomas Kennedy is a communications fellow for the Center for Community Change Action. He tweets from @Tomaskenn.