May 11, 2000
Lawyers for the government and Elian Gonzalez's Miami family argued in federal court today whether the 6-year-old boy has the right to file for asylum. After this report on the day's arguments, two lawyers discuss the asylum law at the heart of the case.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the latest in the legal battle over the fate of Elian Gonzalez. In January, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, backed by Attorney General Janet Reno, refused to consider an asylum application from the 6-year-old boy and his Miami relatives. The government said only the boy's father-- then still in Cuba-- could speak for him.
In March, ruling on a lawsuit brought by Elian's relatives, a federal judge in Miami upheld the INS decision. But in April, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta granted the Miami family's request for a temporary order barring Elian from leaving the United States. The court also said the Miami relatives had, "presented a substantial case on the merits of their asylum claim on Elian's behalf."
Today, the Appeals Court held its long-awaited hearing on the merits of this case. The question: Did the INS act correctly in dismissing the boy's asylum application? Jay Weaver, a reporter for the Miami Herald, was in the Atlanta courtroom today, and joins us now.
|Can a 6-year-old apply for asylum?|
MARGARET WARNER: Welcome, Mr. Weaver. This is the day the Miami relatives have been waiting for. How did the hearing unfold?
JAY WEAVER, Miami Herald: Well, it was an interesting beginning because the presiding judge, James Edmondson, actually came out before the hearing began at 9:00 and politely asked all of us in the courtroom -- there were about 150 people: Lawyers, journalists, a few family members, and the Department of Justice lawyers in the spectator area -- and they said, you know, these are oral arguments. This is part of a body of evidence that will help us decide whether or not Elian Gonzalez is entitled to a political asylum hearing. And he urged all of us not to draw conclusions from the types of questions asked or the nature of the questions. And it was an interesting beginning to what was supposed to be a 40- minute hearing, and it turned out to be an 80-minute hearing. So it went twice as long as it normally does.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, we'll try to adhere to the judge's admonition. Let's start with the lawyer for the Miami relatives, Kendall Coffey. What did he argue and how did the judges respond?
JAY WEAVER: Well, Kendall Coffey, who was a former U.S. Attorney in Miami, is among a dozen attorneys representing the Miami relatives who want to force the government to give the boy an asylum hearing. Basically he said that the Immigration and Naturalization Service made a big mistake when it did not interview the boy for an asylum request, and that he was entitled to one, that the law passed by Congress says any alien may apply for asylum. That means any alien of any age. And immediately one of the judges, a circuit judge named Charles Wilson from Florida, asked Kendall Coffey, you know, does the INS have the discretion to do this, you know, to deny the boy an asylum hearing? And he said absolutely not. That it is required by law for the INS to give the boy an asylum hearing. But it went a step further.
Charles Wilcox Wilson also raised the point, "but he's only six years old. How can he possibly make an informed claim for asylum?" And on top of that, the judge noted he has only, you know, a scrawled signature on one of his three applications submitted by his Miami relatives, and it didn't even have his last name on it. So this judge seemed to be probably the one that was tipping his hand the most about the problem that the Miami relatives have with their request for a political asylum hearing for the boy.
MARGARET WARNER: Then next the Deputy Solicitor General, Mr. Kneedler, went. Again, tell us about the exchange there.
JAY WEAVER: Well, he was probably peppered with the most questions. Judge Edmondson, who is the presiding judge again, came out with a lot of questions about, you know, the...what he saw as kind of an inherent conflict between the fact that the father is from Cuba, a Communist country, and the boy is in the United States seeking asylum in a free democracy. And he seemed to think that that was an inherent conflict and seemed to differ a lot with the INS on that point. The INS..
MARGARET WARNER: Meaning what exactly?
JAY WEAVER: Well, meaning that the INS in its original ruling said that there was no conflict, that the father spoke for the boy...
MARGARET WARNER: Right, and they had gone to Cuba and spoken to the father.
JAY WEAVER: And the INS had interviewed him twice, and found him to have a loving, caring relationship with the boy, and there was no reason to think that this boy would be persecuted if he went back to Cuba, either subjectively or objectively. There was nothing about the boy's relationship with his father or relationship with the Cuban government that was going to lead to some sort of persecution. And so the government determined it was in the boy's best interest to be reunited with his father. But the judge seemed to question whether there was just an axiomatic, inherent conflict between what the father wants and what the boy may want in the asylum application, simply because we have a Communist country on the one hand and a free democracy on the other.
|The father's lawyer uses emotional arguments|
|MARGARET WARNER: And then finally, Greg Craig, the lawyer
for Juan Manuel Gonzalez, the father, who is now achieved standing in
this, also, I gather, had a few moments.
JAY WEAVER: Yes, he did. In fact, his comments were more heartfelt, more emotional, because he does not necessarily have to reiterate the government's arguments on immigration law. He merely needs to make the more compelling argument about, we have a boy and a father now reunited after the federal government seized the boy from the Miami relatives' home on April 22. He was imploring the judges to not let this dispute drag on forever. It would damage Juan Miguel, it would damage the boy, it would damage the family. But what was interesting about Greg Craig's statement were questions about why it took Juan Miguel Gonzalez almost five months to come to the United States to claim his son, and Craig answered the question very efficiently. He said that within two days of the boy's arrival, after he was rescued off the Florida coast, that the Miami exile community and the Miami relatives-- when I say the exile community, I'm referring to the Cuban exile community-- and the Miami relatives made it crystal clear they were never going to turn over this boy.
Moreover, it became clear to Craig, as he pointed out, that it was going to be difficult for the father to be able to get his boy back immediately, which was one of the terms that he was demanding in order to come to the United States. And lastly, he was saying that you had two governments that are normally strange bedfellows, and divergent interests, you know, as far as U.S.-Cuba policy goes. But they couldn't come to terms on a visa, and whether the father should come. So he answered the question in that manner and the judge seemed-- Joel Dubina was the judge-- seemed to be satisfied with that response.
MARGARET WARNER: So, briefly, I gather one of the judges indicated that they may rule in a few weeks, but that could still then be appealed.
JAY WEAVER: Yes it could. Judge Edmonson early on, before the hearing began at 9:00, said that normally this would take a few months for us to respond to, but because of the importance of the case, they would give it expedited treatment. That means that they would make a decision within a few weeks.
MARGARET WARNER: All right.
JAY WEAVER: And the decision could come down this way. The appellate court could say that the lower court was right in siding with the government in saying that the INS acted within its authority to reject or shelf the boy's asylum claim. Or it could say the INS or the Immigration Service should give the boy an asylum hearing. There could be appeals after that as well, but if...
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Weaver, I'm sorry. We're going to have to leave it there because I have to go on to another panel, but thank you very much.
JAY WEAVER: You're welcome.