Impasse over Cuban boy frustrating U.S. officials

Pressure mounting to resolve legal dispute with 6-year-old's relatives

March 25, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Justice Department officials prepared last night to put new pressure on Miami relatives of the Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, for a quick solution to the dispute over sending him back home to his father.

The planning has apparently been made more difficult by officials' deepening concern that the 6-year-old boy's relatives will not give ground. But forcing them to turn over Elian is not an option the department wants to take, according to a Clinton administration official.

A quick exchange of proposals this week failed to produce any resolution. Though the tone of letters exchanged by the department and lawyers for the South Florida family was generally courteous, there was no agreement on a solution.

The Justice Department gave the family an ultimatum Thursday night, with less than 24 hours to reply, suggesting speeding up the appeals process in court.

The family's lawyers met the deadline for responding to the proposal but countered with a suggestion to have Elian's fate submitted to a neutral arbitrator -- something outside the usual procedures for dealing with immigration matters.

Yesterday afternoon, Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner swiftly rejected the arbitration idea.

That decision left department officials with the option of devising something different or moving to implement a January decision by Meissner and Attorney General Janet Reno to return the child to Cuba. A federal judge upheld that decision this week, but the relatives plan to appeal.

The risk of a potentially ugly confrontation over the boy's retrieval from the relatives, however, appears to be a genuine worry among Reno and her top aides. Notes of frustration have begun to appear in comments by officials willing to discuss the situation.

In its proposal offered Thursday night, the Justice Department said it was willing to join in a rapidly unfolding appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- but only if the relatives were willing to agree to give up the boy if they lost and could not get the Supreme Court to intervene.

"If we are unable to reach agreement, the government will make arrangements to implement" the January ruling in favor of the father, the department's letter warned.

It also reminded the relatives that the department still has the power to take the boy away from his great-uncle and place him with someone else.

The six-page reply by Kendall Coffey, the Miami lawyer for the great-uncle, argued that the department should arrange for a psychological evaluation of the boy to determine if he risks harm by being sent back to Cuba.

That evaluation would be part of a proposed two-week arbitration review to decide what is in the boy's best interests -- including a decision on whether he should be granted political asylum so he could remain in the U.S.

The result of the arbitration would be binding on both sides, and no court appeals could challenge the ruling.

Coffey said the proposal provided "a framework for a final adjudication that will operate far more promptly than any envisioned in your letter."

It is not clear that Justice Department officials have the authority to shift an immigration case to arbitration. Coffey's letter did not suggest a legal basis for such a shift.

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