Let him stay, Gore says of Cuban boy

Vice president breaks with Justice Dept., Clinton in Elian case

March 31, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore broke sharply with President Clinton and the Justice Department over the future of Elian Gonzalez yesterday, backing legislation that would allow the 6-year-old Cuban boy to remain in the United States as his case moves through Florida's family courts.

Gore's move could complicate the Justice Department's efforts to negotiate a peaceful solution to the increasingly volatile crisis over the fate of the boy, who survived a boat capsizing that took the life of his mother.

The timing of Gore's announcement -- coming in the midst of a furor among Cuban Americans who want the boy to remain in Miami -- drew rebukes from some of his Democratic supporters and charges of political expediency from some Republican opponents.

With a potential deportation of Elian just days away, the vice president said, "Now we must take action, here on our own shores, to make sure that Elian's best interests are served."

Since early January, Gore has sent out mixed signals about his position on the case, holding that the boy's fate should be decided by "domestic courts" but also that Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, should be able to come to the United States and reclaim custody of his child.

Yesterday, the vice president made a sudden move to firm up his position, endorsing for the first time a bill in Congress that would give Elian, his father, stepmother, half-brother, grandmothers and grandfather permanent resident status "so that this case can be adjudicated properly."

The Clinton administration has maintained that the case is an immigration matter, properly resolved through the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the federal courts. "There is a legal process. We ought to let it play out," Clinton said Wednesday.

But Gore moved yesterday to short-circuit that process and abruptly shift the case out of the Clinton administration's purview.

`A custody matter'

"From the beginning, I have said that Elian Gonzalez's case is at heart a custody matter -- that should be decided by courts that have the experience and expertise to resolve custody cases," Gore said in a statement. "It now appears that our immigration laws may not be broad enough to allow for such an approach in Elian's case."

Democratic leadership aides expressed shock that the vice president had thrown his weight behind legislation that most Democrats -- and many Republicans -- oppose, along with Clinton and the Justice Department.

The bill was proposed by Sen. Robert C. Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, and Sen. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican. But bipartisan opposition to the measure was forming among lawmakers who feared that it would send a signal that political concerns and anti-Cuba sentiment superseded parental rights.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, called Gore's decision "dreadfully wrong," adding: "This is not a contest between relatives, or a divorce proceeding. This was a tragedy that involved a child, where his father has a strong personal relationship with him and wants to be home with his son."

Supporters and opponents of the legislation say they believe that Gore's endorsement could revive the bill's slacking momentum.

"In practical terms, I hope it is a catalyst to get the Republican majorities to bring this legislation out of committee and onto the floor for a vote," said Rep. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and a Cuban-American who has sponsored similar legislation in the House. "They now have the vice president on the record in support. And that should move some Democrats as well."

Gore campaign aides and supporters insisted that the vice president's statement was not a politically motivated gesture to curry favor in Florida, which has 25 electoral college votes, the fourth-largest total in the coming presidential election. In recent Florida polls, the vice president is running about even with his Republican rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, despite the power of Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, the Republican candidate's brother.

For Gore to ultimately win the state, he would need a good showing among South Florida's politically active Cuban community, which passionately wishes for the boy to remain in the United States.

"The fact that Elian Gonzalez's mother risked everything to achieve getting him to this country is very important around here," said Mitchell Berger, a South Florida lawyer who is one of Gore's top fund-raisers.

Gore aides did not explain why exactly Gore had decided now to shift his position to back the legislation. Some White House aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that Gore had made a politically calculated move just as the Gonzalez case was coming to a climax.

Bush's reaction

Bush chided Gore yesterday for his "11th-hour decision" to support a bill that the Texas governor endorsed more than two months ago. And he called on the vice president to sway Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno on the matter.

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