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JANET RENO: Good afternoon. Today I met with Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, a man who expressed in a very clear and in a heartfelt manner his sincere desire to have his son returned to him as soon as possible. All you had to do was listen to him and look at him and see how much he obviously loves this little boy. The meeting was with only a small group of people. Mr. Gonzalez was joined by his wife and their six-month-old baby boy and his lawyer Gregory Craig. No Cuban officials were present. During the hour-long meeting, Mr. Gonzalez and I had a very open and honest discussion. Throughout, he repeated what he has said time and again. He wants his son back.
I wholeheartedly reject Cuba’s system of government. Mr. Gonzalez and I do not share the same political beliefs, but it is not our place to punish a father for his political beliefs or where he wants to raise his child. Indeed, if we were to start judging parents on the basis of their political beliefs, we would change the concept of family for the rest of time. It is time for this little boy, who has been through so much, to be with his father. The relatives say it would be wrenching to him to take him from the home. But four months is no substitute for six years for a father who had such an important role in raising such a wonderful little boy. I know most people in the Cuban community differ with my decision because they have the best interests of Elian at heart. Many of them risked their lives to come to this country. They want him to have the opportunity that they have had, but in the end, I believe that they also understand that this is a nation of laws by which all must abide. And it is a nation whose law and whose very moral foundation recognized that there is a bond, a special, wonderful, sacred bond, between a father and his son — one that I intend to uphold.
I urge everybody involved to move forward to effect this reconciliation and this reunification as soon as possible. Elian deserves the very best and the best we can give him, for he has been so much and, in his own way, rather than tear us apart, he has brought us together to understand the strength of the human spirit. Let’s not disappoint him.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more on the government’s position.
MARGARET WARNER: And for that, I’m joined by Bo Cooper, general counsel for the Immigration & Naturalization Service. Welcome.
Flesh out a little bit more for us the step-by-step process. First of all, the attorney general said she would invite one of the family to meet with psychologists and psychiatrists chosen by the government next Monday. Now, first of all, who else would be in the meeting?
BO COOPER: The idea between the meeting would be principally a discussion between the psychiatric and psychological experts that have advised us in the government and the relatives in Miami. And the notion would be to convey to relatives in Miami the importance of preparing Elian for the transfer that’s going to take place shortly, and conveying to them the importance of direct participation by the adults around him in that transfer for his own best interest.
MARGARET WARNER: Would the government lawyers be in the meeting?
BO COOPER: No, there would be no government lawyers in the meeting.
MARGARET WARNER: And is the boy’s father invited to that meeting?
BO COOPER: No, not to that meeting. I think it would make sense for the same sort of meeting to take place with the boy’s father. But we’ll have to see if they’re agreeable to that.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, as you know, the family in Miami has said over and over again, you know, the government has never met with the boy, they have never had psychologists talk to the boy. Why not?
BO COOPER: Well, the whole question is in this case is about a boy who is six years old and of such tender years that he is not capable of making legal judgments for himself. You don’t ask a six-year-old child where you want to live. And the question at this point is not whether he should be reunited with his father. It’s how that should take place in a way that’s most conducive to his well-being.
MARGARET WARNER: And that’s certainly what you and Attorney General Reno are saying — that the meeting Monday is strictly advisory on sort of the how of the transfer. Whether is not on the table.
BO COOPER: That’s exactly right.
MARGARET WARNER: What if the family declines to participate?
BO COOPER: I would be surprised if they declined to participate, and one of the few points that they’ve been making throughout is that it’s important to keep Elian’s well-being foremost in mind. It’s our view that participating in a discussion that would permit them to have the benefit of this expert advice on how to make this transfer take place in Elian’s best interest would be something that would be very desirable.
MARGARET WARNER: Then after that meeting, the attorney general said at some point next week, we will give the relatives instructions on when and where Elian is to be turned over with… to his father. So not… one, the government will make that decision. But it was a little unclear when she said at that time, the INS will formally transfer parole and care to the father. At what point legally will the patrol be transferred to the father?
BO COOPER: At the point of physical transfer. The idea is that early in the week there will be instructions setting out how and where and when this transfer will take place — and then on that date at the time of transfer, the legal permission for Elian to remain in the care of his relatives in Miami will end and be transferred to his father and family here.
MARGARET WARNER: But not to beat this to death — but will the legal transfer of the custody take place before the physical, or do you see that all happening at once?
BO COOPER: At the same time.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what if the Miami family refuses to participate in the transfer?
BO COOPER: Well, the attorney general has been clear that the Department and the INS are prepared to carry out the order. It’s time for this boy to be back with his father. But we’re very hopeful that they will participate in this process. They’ve said from the beginning that they will comply with the law. And at this point, the law will be that they’re under lawful instruction to turn the boy back over to his father. It will have been based on a decision by the commissioner, confirmed by the attorney general and upheld by a federal district court.
MARGARET WARNER: The family has also been saying the last couple of days, or since the father arrived, that they would like to meet privately with the father, without government lawyers, and without a lot of other people in the meeting. Would you advise the father to do that, if that would smooth this transfer?
BO COOPER: Well, Juan Miguel has his own counsel and so I’m not in a good position to offer him advice. I can say generally though, that it seems to me that emotions have been very high in this case obviously on both sides, it’s a difficult situation for all involved. But it does seem to me that the more there’s a possibility for direct communication, the… by far the better it’s likely to be in the end for the child.
MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you think there may be things the father could do to help the Miami family feel more comfortable about cooperating?
BO COOPER: I can’t speak either for the father or the Miami family, but it certainly seems to me that there are things that all the adults in the situation could do to smooth the process.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Now what has the father told you or the father’s lawyers told you about his intentions once this custody is transferred and once he has the boy?
BO COOPER: A couple of things. First of all, the father, through his attorney, has said that he is willing to… I mean he obviously preferred to come here just to pick up his child. But they said they are willing to do what is necessary to bring this about in a way that results in his being back with the child and in a fair way that’s good for the child. And so they had expressed their willingness to remain, if necessary, through the process of the remainder of the circuit court appeal. They’re, of course, under no legal obligation to do so. The father wasn’t obliged to come here as a matter of law. We applaud him for doing that but he was not obliged to have done that. And he wouldn’t at this point be under any legal obligation to stay once custody is given to him. There is no court order.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you – again, Attorney General Reno seemed to be suggesting very indirectly there might be a quid pro quo here, an informal one that if the father… the father might agree, look, I will stay at least until the next hearing, which I think is May 11 before the appeals court — if the family helps effect the transfer in a smooth way.
BO COOPER: Right. Well, let me just emphasize, the father is here under quite cooperative conditions, and he has said that he is willing to stay as long as it’s necessary to bring this about. And so, you know, exactly what his intentions are would have to come from him and his counsel. But, yes, the idea that the attorney general is trying to get across is that the goal here is to bring this reunion about in a very prompt way and in a way that’s best for Elian, and that, I think, undoubtedly is in a cooperative way if that’s at all possible. So we’ll always listen to ways to make that happen. And certainly the power to help make that happen rests in the hands of the relatives in Miami.
MARGARET WARNER: Would you see, though, the department, either INS or the Justice Department, looking for some sort of a written agreement though?
BO COOPER: At this point, the key point is that the reunion is going to take place. This is a different stage in the process from before the father was here and we had been involved in the long discussions with the family, the relatives in Miami in which we had gone to great lengths to try to work out a cooperative arrangement for a hastened process before the circuit court in exchange for their agreement that at the end of that process, if they have not prevailed, as we don’t expect them to, then they will reunite the child with his father in a voluntary way.
MARGARET WARNER: Now that the father is in this country and has had at least this one meeting with the attorney general, is it the government’s impression that he is acting entirely of his own free will – that he is not acting under duress – he’s not speaking for the government?
BO COOPER: From the beginning of the case, not just now, from the beginning of the case one of the key things that we in the government had to look at when we were trying to figure out whether the father did, indeed, speak for his child if he was under some form of coercion, whether he was freely stating his mind. And on the basis of two interviews with the father in Havana outside the presence of Cuban government officials, on the basis of other information that we’ve received, and, again, on the basis of the meeting this morning, it seems clear to us that he wants his son back. And I’ve got small kids, and I know that U.S. and Cuba are countries that have their differences but it seems to me that a father in Cuba can want his son back with him just like a father in the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: Why didn’t the attorney general do this sooner? As she pointed out today, she had the authority to do this a lot sooner.
BO COOPER: The authority to do this has certainly existed since the commissioner announced her decision in January of this year. What we have been engaged in is an extraordinary effort to try to make this happen in the best way for Elian. And that seemed to us to be a cooperative way and it seemed that that was an important enough stake that we should go to great lengths to do that so long as the period of time didn’t become intolerably long.
MARGARET WARNER: Is it fair to say the father’s arrival has completely changed the equation in every way?
BO COOPER: I think it has.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you want to expand on that briefly?
BO COOPER: Well, the decision, I’m convinced, was correct in January that the child should be returned to his father. The father was not obliged to come here. But we have been in a situation of some entrenchment. And it seems to me that with the father having arrived, it’s difficult for me to see what basis there could be for keeping a six-year-old boy away from his father from whom he has been separated from over a third of the year after the boy lost his mother. I don’t doubt that these relatives in Miami love the child very much. It’s difficult not to – based on what I’ve seen from the press and elsewhere of the child.. But the boy has a father and that’s the bottom line.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Bo Cooper, thanks very much.
BO COOPER: Thank you so much.