Congress Debates Elian Gonzalez
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RAY SUAREZ: We now have two more views from Congress. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Republican from Florida. And Representative Charles Rangel is a Democrat from New York. Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, a lot of people who want Elian Gonzalez to stay in this country said as long as it went to a Florida court, they would wait and see what happens. Why should Congress get involved in this now?
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, unfortunately, the way the system has been rigged by INS, by a bureaucratic, closed-door procedure, the family has not had the opportunity to go to court. We do want to take it to family state court. We believe that those thorny issues, and they’re very emotional issues about who should be granted custody, is why these family courts were devised in the state of Florida.
We have a wonderful program, the Guardian Ad Litem program, that advocates not on behalf of one side or on behalf of the other, but on what is in the best interest of Elian. The family here in the U.S. has been shut out of that. And we hope that the decision that the previous judge had made, saying that they would have a family court hearing on March 6 would go on.
And we invite Elian’s entire family from Cuba to come to the United States and testify in an open hearing, and so that the judge can decide in an unbiased, unprejudiced, open hearing what is in the best interest of Elian. And that’s what the family here in the U.S. wants, and I’m sure that’s what all parties would like, not INS standards, which is only to prove me paternity, and then they say, well, you legally speak for the child, so you can have custody of the child. In fact, INS’s first communication to the U.S. family and to the press was, “this is a custody battle that will be determined by the Florida courts, not by us.”
Now INS has taken it upon itself to become a family court. And that’s not right. And that’s why the citizenship bill or the permanent residency bill both affords the family the opportunity to go to court and takes it out of INS’ hands.
RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Rangel, your colleague from across the aisle is a cosponsor of that citizenship bill. You’re a sponsor of a Sense of the Congress bill. Tell us about it.
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: It merely gives the members of Congress an opportunity to express their view that we should abide by the laws of this country. Clearly the people in Miami probably have concerns about the child, but there’s no state court that can interpret the United States immigration laws. This is a question of international custody. And I don’t really think the hatred for Fidel Castro should allow people to use young Elian as a tool or as a weapon. The Congress should not intervene in administrative decisions.
The precious gift of citizenship should not be used as a political tool because of our disagreements with Fidel Castro. It’s not used for this purpose. It’s merely being used to delay the inevitable, and that is this case has to come to a federal court. And the decision is going to be in support of the federal law. Now, tomorrow the Justice Department and the Immigration have asked the people in Miami that if you care anything about the boy, let the grandparents visit with them.
A child who has seen his mother die certainly common sense would dictate that he would want the love and affection of his father and his grandparents. Yesterday the people had a political rally outside of the home and it frightened the heck out of the grandparents. Now the United States Government is asking them, please take the child to a neutral place without the Cuban flag and American flag and let the parents and the families decide what’s in the best interests of the child.
RAY SUAREZ: Congresswoman?
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, first let me say some things about the reality of the situation. I’ve had an opportunity to be with the U.S. relatives, and I can tell you that they have a warm, nurturing home where Elian is well cared for. They love him. He loves them. He has told me that he wants to stay here.
Perhaps he would say something else tomorrow. I’m not a child psychologist, but that’s why we have these custody battles taking place in a hearing. And when you talk about how rare this event is, in fact, between 1992 and 1997, in those five years alone, Congress granted citizenship 30 times. And they’re not famous people. I know that sometimes the other side brings up the name of Winston Churchill or Mother Theresa.
Those are honorary citizenship. This is not what we’re talking about. Congress does have the power. They’re called private bills. We’re not usurping that. We’re using a process that has been tried and true. Perhaps we have the votes and perhaps we don’t.
That is the kind of Democratic system that the people of Cuba are denied, and that was the last wish of Elian’s mother. I spoke to the other two survivors who were with us, Elian’s mother, Elizabeth, and Elian, and they said her last breath, her last wish, her last prayer was to have Elian come to the United States.
And Elian throughout that terrible ordeal was very excited about coming to what he calls “Liuma,” which is the phrase that Cubans use for the United States – very much — very happy to be coming here. And we’re talking about a system in Cuba where the Cuban constitution strips the parents of all rights and responsibilities.
Castro wants to portray himself as the great family unifier. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We have the case here of a constituent of my district, Mr. Jose Cohen, who is a U.S. permanent resident who has his wife and three children in Cuba. They have visas to come because the U.S. Government has given them the visa. Castro says, no, you cannot join your father.
And we have case after case of many parents here in the United States and Castro denies them visits — exit visas. In fact, the National Council of Churches who so badly wants to protect Elian has told Mr. Cohen, oh, we can’t help you in your case, that’s between the United States and Cuba. So where is the justice in that?
RAY SUAREZ: Charles Rangel.
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: You really talked about everything accept Elian. You don’t have to go to his deceased mother to get a message. Common sense and decency would allow you to believe whether you’re American or Cuban that when you’ve lost your mother, you want your father and your grandparents and to say that the people in Miami know what is best.
Another thing is that never have we ever found the United States Congress granting citizenship to a child when his guardians are foreign and asking that he be returned home to them. Here we have a situation where the parent, the father of the child who has been proven by American presence in Havana to be a loving parent, not be Castro, Communist or dictators, that you find the grandparents and the mother who lost her child.
You are telling me that some people in Miami know better than the mother of the person who died, that is the mother of Elian. I know what’s going on. This is really a case against Castro, a case for the embargo, a case for the Cuban-American Foundation. And this politics is what’s ruling.
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: No.
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: And not what’s in the best interest of the child.
RAY SUAREZ: Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, Charles Rangel suggests this is an unusual case to grant a minor child with living parents American citizenship. But is he right?
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, let me give you a few more unusual cases. We have a gentleman whose name is General Rafael Delpino, a high ranking person in Cuba’s military who defected to the United States along with his 14-year-old son. What happened is that the mother of the child in Cuba, similar to a case right now, said, oh, you kidnapped my child. This is terrible. And if needed, I’m going to sue you in the U.S. courts.
You can’t take my child away. What happened to Carmen Delpino? A few years later she came to the United States on a raft and held a press conference and said, of course I had to say those things. I was in communist Cuba. What else do you think I would say?
RAY SUAREZ: But this person that we’re talking about, there’s one living parent, not two.
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Let me give you another incident, then. We had a mother, who because of desperation, because that’s what life is like in Cuba, a police totalitarian state, along with other desperate parents rammed the gates of the Guantanamo Naval base.
She had two children. One of them she was able to hoist over the fence and said, “take her, please.” She was then transferred to the United States. The father, who remained in Cuba, by the way, the mother was of course sent to jail — the father petitioned for custody.
And what happened when he got to Florida state court? The court ruled that in the best interest of the child, she should be raised here. So the parents perhaps are the best guardian, but perhaps they’re not. Let the courts decide –
RAY SUAREZ: Congresswoman, when is your resolution going to come up for a vote? Do you think this is going to come up rather quickly?
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, we’ve had a terrible snowstorm, as you know, in DC. We don’t think it will come up till next week or a few weeks. The Senate will act first, and then we will wait on the House side to see what happens. So it’s a few weeks in coming. We’ll have more debates with my good friend Charlie Rangel from here to then.
RAY SUAREZ: And have you had your whips, Charles Rangel, look at your sense of the house resolution?
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: Well, if they try to expedite this, it will take a two-thirds vote to suspend the regular rules of the House, but the Republicans have done some very strange things. One of the Republicans has subpoenaed the six-year-old child who doesn’t speak English to appear before a House Congressional committee in violation of the House rules.
So I don’t know just how far they intend to stretch the House rules, but normally if you suspend the rules, it will take a two-thirds vote. Now, this issue should be decided by the federal courts because it’s clear that that court in Miami has no jurisdiction over immigration laws or international custody.
RAY SUAREZ: I’m going to have to stop it there. Charles Rangel, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, thank you both.