Tug of War for Elian Gonzalez
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RAY SUAREZ: Elian Gonzalez played in the yard of his Miami home today while negotiations between relatives and Immigration officials over the boy’s fate have been put on hold until Monday. However, on Capitol Hill, there’s renewed effort to keep Elian in the United States, Senate legislation that would grant the boy and his family in Cuba permanent residency status in the United States, overriding current U.S. immigration law.
SPOKESMAN: A bill for the relief of Elian Gonzalez and other family members.
RAY SUAREZ: The bill’s main sponsors are New Hampshire Republican Bob Smith and Florida Democrat Bob Graham. This follows Florida Republican Connie Mack’s earlier bill to make Elian a U.S. citizen. Meanwhile, the boy’s father — Juan Miguel Gonzalez — wrote an open letter to Senate leaders that appeared in Cuba’s state-run newspaper. It says, “we want to make it clear that we are not in agreement and we hope the U.S. Senate does not approve the proposal. We especially reject, with absolute firmness, the real aim of that proposal, which is none other than to perpetuate the arbitrary retention of Elian Gonzalez.” It’s unclear how much support there is for this legislation in the Senate, but this latest episode has become a focal point of the presidential campaign. Yesterday, Vice President Al Gore broke with the Clinton administration’s position of reuniting Elian with his family in Cuba and now supports congressional action to keep him here, at least for now. He spoke to National Public Radio.
AL GORE: The father would be able to express his true opinion about what’s in the best interest of this child without fear of intimidation, without the influence of chanting, paid demonstrators outside his window in Cuba. Secondly, what this would accomplish is clear up the legal confusion and immediately give jurisdiction to the family court in Florida that has the expertise to decide the central issue: What is in the best interest of the child?
RAY SUAREZ: Campaigning in Green Bay, Wisconsin, today Governor George W. Bush again stated his support for legislation and urged his opponent to do more.
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: If the Vice President is serious and not playing Florida politics, he ought to stand up and say to the attorney general, “General, you’ve got the power to back the INS off, and I hope the Vice President has got enough influence in the administration to sway the attorney general and to sway the President. It will be an interesting test.
RAY SUAREZ: White House Deputy Press Secretary, Jake Seward responded to reporters’ questions at this morning’s daily briefing.
JAKE SEWARD: The Vice President made a judgment that he thinks there should be a change in the law. We disagree with that. But we said for a long time now that he will have different points of view on different issues, and this is one of those instances.
RAY SUAREZ: And for more, we turn to two members of Congress. Democratic Senator Bob Graham of Florida is a co-sponsor of the legislation that would give Elian Gonzalez permanent residency in the United States. And Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel of New York opposes such a move. Senator Graham, what would you hope to accomplish by getting this bill passed?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM, (D) Florida: First, let’s clear up one misunderstanding. The Vice President has taken a consistent position since December that the case of Elian Gonzalez should be treated not as an INS case but rather as a custody case in a family court. The legislation that we have introduced has that as one of its principal objectives. If Elian were granted permanent legal residence in the United States, his case would be moved from the INS and would be placed in a family court where the question would be, what is in Elian’s best interest? And an experienced jurist would make a judgment among those who might desire to be the custodian or guardian of Elian Gonzalez, what would be in Elian’s best interest?
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what’s different about current INS procedures for adjudicating cases of this kind that make you want to remove it and put it in the family courts of the state of Florida?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: The current law has as its standard who speaks for the child, who has the authority to, for instance, as in Elian’s case, file an asylum request that Elian be allowed to stay in the United States. The INS has determined that the father speaks for the child, and the father refuses to exercise his right to apply for such an asylum. That was the issue at the federal court in Miami, and that is the issue on appeal to the intermediate court in Atlanta.
RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Rangel, why do you oppose an effort to make Elian Gonzalez and members of his family permanent residents?
REP. CHARLES RANGEL, (D) New York: I’m terribly disappointed in the Vice President. He should know better. You just can’t pick and choose with the immigration law — to have a local court, a family court, to interpret immigration law would be wrong, and that’s why the federal court has jurisdiction. Now, to change the law to allow the family court to determine custody, my God, we have hundreds of Haitian kids and kids from the Dominican Republic that we would love to bring to these courts. And I tell you, we can do mischief with a whole lot of exceptions to the immigration law. We have to be a country of laws. The immigration laws help some and hurt others. But it’s abundantly clear that in a political appeal that’s being made to the Cuban-Americans in Miami, that Castro is making a political circus out of this in Havana, and it’s not in the boy’s best interest. It’s clear, the boy’s father is surviving. The law says the kid should be with his surviving parent, and he should be sent to Cuba. If it was any other country, we wouldn’t have this problem. But it’s Cuba, and Cuba is unfortunately treated differently. We wouldn’t even have the embargo against this country if it wasn’t for the Cuban-American political interest in Miami. It’s a sad case, and it doesn’t do well for Elian Gonzalez.
RAY SUAREZ: Senator Graham?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: First, I agree with Congressman Rangel that there are many other children who are caught in similar situations involving the INS. The INS is a very child unfriendly agency. And I intend to introduce some legislation, which will try to inject a greater sensitivity to the special circumstances of minor children, for instance, giving them the ability to be represented by a guardian ad litem, in their immigration cases. But this is not a political issue that just broke two days ago. The Vice President has had a consistent, I think, very considered position that the current law, which only asks the question who speaks for the child is fundamentally unjust, that Elian deserves — and all of these other children deserve — the opportunity to have their futures evaluated by the standard of what is in their best interest, and that is what we hope to do for Elian and what I hope we will do for many other children caught in similar circumstances.
RAY SUAREZ: But the Congressman submits, Senator, that you’re making a special case in effect sailing right over the INS by trying to handle this particular case this way.
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: There is no question that we are trying to deal today specifically with the issue of Elian because the INS had announced on Wednesday that it was prepared to revoke Elian’s parole status as of 9:00 AM. on Thursday and potentially then send him back to Cuba. So, we felt the pressure to introduce our legislation in order to try to send a signal to the INS that there were those who felt that their implementation of the current law failed to meet U.S. standards of due process and justice and that we wanted to give Elian and eventually other similarly situated children an opportunity to be treated by the standard of what was in their best interest.
RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Rangel?
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: When you say “send him back to Cuba, it sounds so harsh that you would send him back to a dictatorship. If you said, “send him back to his surviving parent, send him back to his father, send him back to where he was born for the love of those people that are there that know him, not strangers that they have that can take him to Disneyland and buy him hot dogs and little puppies. It seems so cruel to say that Elian has to make a decision. He’s a six-year-old. And those people in Miami are not… should not be there to make a decision as to what is in his best interest. Whether it’s common law or statutory law, it is abundantly clear, unless there’s overriding reasons why this child should not be with his surviving parent, then he should be returned there. It’s just too bad that in Miami they hate Castro and they hate Cuba so much that they’re willing to use this kid as a pawn.
RAY SUAREZ: Senator?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: Our position is that the family will not make this decision. It will not be a decision made in the streets. It will be a decision made like hundreds of similar decisions are made every day in the courts of the United States by an experienced jurist whose responsibility is to determine what is in the best interest of the child. That’s where we think that issue ought to be resolved, not in an INS hearing where the only question is, who speaks for the child — not whether they speak what is best for the child.
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: You can’t run away from the INS. First of all in the family court you need the family. The boy’s father is in Cuba. And the reason he’s in Cuba is because he’s a foreigner and he’s not allowed to come to the United States and that the son Elian — even though he’s a wonderful child — is still in the United States illegally. So how can a family court determine what’s in the best interest of the child? Is he or she going to go to Cuba, talk to the father? That court has no jurisdiction over this illegal child. It’s only the federal courts — and I warn everybody that if you start making exceptions to it and say that you want local courts to decide political questions as to who should be in the United States and who shouldn’t, you are really opening up Pandora’s Box.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator….
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: Congressman Rangel is absolutely correct that under the current law that unfortunate, I think, unjust result is probably what’s going to happen. That’s why we are trying to change the law, first, in this case where there’s a high level of urgency and then on a more general basis for other children so that we will not have repetitions of where a child has come, in this case, because his mother died at sea trying to get to the United States, into the United States, and have the only standard by which their future will be evaluated, who speaks for their interest. If this were a child from Nazi Germany who had come to the United States under similar circumstances or from the Soviet Union, would we think that justice would be to return the child back to a parent living in those repressive regimes?
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator, so far the debate has been carried on in the absence of the father. This week an application for a visa was submitted. If he’s here sooner, rather than later, does that change things largely in the situation in Florida, in your view of it?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: I think that’s a very constructive step. If the father will, in fact, as he’s indicated, apply for a visa, Castro has indicated that he will allow the father to leave, which is some commentary on the quality of human rights in Cuba and with the father here we’ll be in an even better posture to ask and answer the question, “What is in Elian’s best interest?”
RAY SUAREZ: And a quick final word for Congressman Rangel.
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: Well, this is a country of family values, and I just hate to see it distorted because of the politics in Miami and Havana. It’s abundantly clear in my mind, the attorney general and the president that this young kid belongs in the loving arms of his father and there’s no reason for us to believe that he’s not a good father.
RAY SUAREZ: Senator, Congressman, thank you both.
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: Thank you very much.