WASHINGTON -- U.S. immigration officials announced yesterday that 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez should be reunited with his father and returned to Cuba, ruling on the emotional, international tug of war between the boy's father and his relatives in Miami who hoped to make a permanent home for the child in America.
The politically charged drama has captured worldwide attention since Thanksgiving Day, when the slight, wide-eyed boy was found clinging to an inner tube in the waters off the Florida coast, after his mother and nine other Cubans trying to flee the communist island nation drowned during a storm.
Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner said yesterday that the child's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez -- who is divorced from the child's mother and has said he wants the boy returned to him in Cuba -- had the sole legal authority to speak for the child regarding his immigration status.
"This little boy, who has been through so much, belongs with his father," Meissner said at a press conference here yesterday. "We urge everyone involved to understand, respect and uphold the bond between parent and child, and laws of the United States."
The boy, who has been in the custody of his exiled relatives in Miami, is to be returned to his father by Jan. 14, Meissner said. She said the INS was discussing with the Cuban government and other groups the process for returning Elian, and outlined several possible scenarios, including the father's traveling to Miami to accompany his son home.
The decision could end a thorny, six-week standoff between the Cuban and U.S. governments. But as expected, it sparked outrage and immediate protests from Cuban exile leaders in Florida who, along with the child's great-aunt and great-uncle, have insisted Elian would be better off living in the United States than under a communist regime.
Lawyers for the boy's relatives said yesterday they planned to challenge the INS decision in court. "The U.S. government is not sending him back to his father. They are sending him back to a mad old man, that is Fidel Castro. What kind of future is that?" Elian's great-uncle Delfin Gonzalez said in Miami, according to Reuters.
Jose Cardenas, Washington director of the Cuban American National Foundation, denounced the fact that the decision was made by the Clinton administration rather than a Florida court. "We have INS bureaucrats determining what's in the best interests of the boy," Cardenas said.
He said the decision sends a signal that the Clinton administration is appeasing Castro. By allowing Elian to return to Cuba, Cardenas said, "you are saying there's really nothing wrong with Cuba -- that it's not an aberration from the family of well-meaning nations."
Meissner said, "Both U.S. and international law recognize the unique relationship between parent and child, and family reunification has long been a cornerstone of both American immigration law and INS practice. It's the right decision legally. It's the right decision morally."
She said the decision, reached in consultation with Attorney General Janet Reno, was made after two interviews with the father at his home in the port city of Cardenas, outside Havana, as well as an interview with the Miami relatives. Gonzalez, a hotel worker, provided vivid details about his son's schooling and medical history and convinced U.S. officials he had a close relationship with the child, Meissner said.
President Clinton said politics played no part in the decision. "The INS followed the law and the procedures and made the decision that they made after an exhaustive review of the facts," he said.
Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based immigration lawyer who frequently challenges INS rulings, agreed with this one, saying the Miami-based family members do not have much legal standing for a challenge. "Stripped of all the politics, what they [INS officials] are doing is what they routinely do," Kurzban said.
But, he added, if the family here is able to tie up the matter in court for a full year, the young boy could claim permanent resident status, giving greater standing in court to lawyers arguing that he should remain in the United Statets.
The INS chief said the father convinced U.S. authorities that his desire for the return of his child was genuine and not, as his relatives and others here have suggested, a position being forced upon him by Castro's government.
Many in Washington, including Cuban-American members of Congress and much of the Republican leadership, remained unconvinced. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, condemned the INS decision, saying the father should be required to come to the United States to make his case outside "the glare of Cuba's brutal dictator."
He and the Senate Republican leadership plan to introduce a bill when Congress reconvenes this month to offer Elian immediate U.S. citizenship.