Congress' second thoughts delay action on Cuban boy

Opposition to granting citizenship emerges from varied interests

January 28, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Even as some senior Republicans are pushing to confer citizenship on Elian Gonzalez, an eclectic coalition of lawmakers has emerged to oppose any congressional intervention in the international custody case.

The proposed legislation to make 6-year-old Elian a U.S. citizen appears to have been stalled by cultural conservatives who deplore government involvement in family matters, free-trade advocates who want to open Cuban markets, and liberal lawmakers from districts with immigrants from other countries.

"People are looking at this through different lenses," said Rep. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat of Cuban descent who favors a similar measure that would provide permanent residency for Elian in the United States. "You have different crosscurrents going on here that have nothing to do with this child."

Earlier this week, Capitol Hill aides said they thought Congress could easily pass the legislation, which would shield Elian from an order by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that he be returned to his father in Cuba. The bill would take the highly unusual step of granting him citizenship. The issue of where he will live would then be settled by a Florida family court judge.

But momentum for the bill appeared to ebb yesterday. Several senior Republicans, such as Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, said they did not know whether there would even be a final vote on such a measure.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, acknowledging that there is a "difference of opinion" among Republican lawmakers, said the bill would be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee rather than sent directly to the floor for a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who had promised a vote this week on the bill, is still "taking the temperature of members," said Lott's spokesman, John Czwartacki. "We just don't know right now."

Grandmothers press case

As they did Tuesday, the boy's two grandmothers continued yesterday to press their case on Capitol Hill for his return.

"The more he stays here, the more he's going to suffer from an emotional point of view," Elian's paternal grandmother, Mariela Quintana, said through an interpreter.

She said the boy appeared withdrawn when they met Wednesday near Miami, far different from the bubbly child she had known.

"Our grandson is a whole different boy," Quintana said. "He has changed completely. We have to save this boy as soon as possible."

But several of Elian's Florida relatives, who want him to stay in the United States, urged lawmakers to back the citizenship bill.

"He doesn't want to go back," said Marisleysis Gonzalez, a cousin. "I saw him approach his grandmothers and had the opportunity to see his face, and it was still the face of fear."

In other developments:

The State Department warned that any intervention by Congress could endanger the ability of Americans to control the custody of their children abroad.

The Justice Department urged a federal judge in Miami to act within a month to clear the way for Elian's return to his father in Cuba. It contended that the boy's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who lives in Miami, has no standing to challenge the INS order sending Elian back to Cuba. Government lawyers asked U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler to dismiss the challenge.

Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, a college president whose Miami Beach home served as the neutral ground for an awkward visit between Elian and his grandmothers Wednesday, told the Associated Press yesterday that she believed the boy would be best served by staying in Florida. She said she felt that the Castro regime in Cuba was manipulating Elian's relatives there to plead for his return and score points against Cuban exiles in the United States.

Elian's mother and stepfather died along with nine others in an attempt to reach U.S. shores. Since Thanksgiving Day, when Elian was plucked from the ocean by rescuers, the boy's Miami-area relatives have sued in Florida family court to retain custody.

But several relatives from Miami, including Lazaro Gonzalez, were also shepherded before the news media after meeting with, among others, Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat; Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat; and Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican. All three lawmakers favor the citizenship legislation and have been sharply critical of the INS order.

Lawmakers who support granting citizenship to Elian tend to be resolute opponents of Fidel Castro's repressive Communist regime. Several politicians come from places such as Florida and, to a lesser extent, New Jersey, which have sizable and politically active Cuban exile communities.

Those seeking to grant Elian residency were confronted by growing wariness among their colleagues. Immigration lawyers say children who arrive in the United States from other countries under similar circumstances are typically sent back immediately.

Both parties are split

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