Elian's case clearly nearing end, experts say

Appeals court ruling appears to close door on Cuban boy's stay

June 02, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

In his six months in the United States, Elian Gonzalez has passed several childhood milestones - he's had a birthday, lost a tooth and learned to ride a bike. He's also been to Disney World and a Georgetown dinner party, the National Aquarium in Baltimore and a private petting zoo on the Eastern Shore.

But now, if there's anything the 6-year-old boy wants to see or do before returning home to Cuba, he probably should hurry.

"It's clearly over," said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-based immigration attorney who, like several colleagues, believes that yesterday's ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will probably withstand any challenges.

Elian's Miami relatives, with whom he lived after being rescued off the coast of Florida on Thanksgiving, have not determined their next move. They can appeal to the 11th Circuit Court or to the Supreme Court. But lawyers say they have little chance of succeeding and that Elian's days in the United States are probably numbered in weeks rather than months.

"Their chances of convincing the judges to rehear are practically nil," said Kuck, who has appeared before the 11th Circuit in the past. "This court has a history of taking a very narrow view on immigration matters. They give extraordinary discretion to the INS."

"I think it will be resolved in a few weeks, before the end of June," agreed Alex Aleinikoff, a Georgetown University law professor and former general counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "I think the chance of [a successful appeal] is pretty small. I think people just believe it's time for this family to go home."

The court gave the Miami relatives 14 days to appeal. How long it would take the court to decide such an appeal is unknown.

Attorney General Janet Reno said the injunction keeping Elian in the United States will likely expire seven days after the court's ruling takes effect, meaning the boy's father would then be free to could take him back to Cuba.

The progress of the case would have to slow drastically for Elian to take advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows refugees to apply for U.S. residency a year and a day after they arrive in this country. For Elian, that date would be Nov. 26.

Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, repeated yesterday his vow to take the boy back to Cuba. Gonzalez spoke in Spanish to reporters outside his lawyer's office yesterday afternoon as Elian remained in their most recent borrowed home, a former estate in the exclusive Cleveland Park neighborhood of Northwest Washington.

"I love him very much. And, really, I want all this to end and, for once and for all, to leave, to go home, along with my son and all my family. And for this unnecessary delay to end," Gonzalez said.

He ended by saying in halting English: "I want to thank the American people." His usually stern public face softened into a smile. "Thank you."

As he has been since arriving in the United States on April 6, Gonzalez was trailed by several protesters who urged him not to take the boy back to the communist country ruled by Fidel Castro. They waved signs as he was driven from the Cleveland Park home and shouted at him as he addressed the news media.

"This is a very sad day," said Mercy Viana, a Washington-based lobbyist for Florida International University and one of the protesters. "We are sending him back to a politically repressed country. He will be punished or his family will be punished if he expresses himself freely."

Gonzalez refused to acknowledge the protesters. He and his attorney, Gregory Craig, appealed to the Miami branch of the Gonzalez family to discontinue its persistent legal attempts to keep Elian in the United States.

In Miami, the fight continued.

Marisleysis Gonzalez, the cousin who considered herself Elian's surrogate mother during the five months the boy lived with her family, held out hope that the boy would somehow get the asylum hearing that the court ruled he had no right to.

"I hope the laws of this country favor him and give him the opportunity to seek asylum," she said.

"I still believe the legal system may yet allow this child at long last to have a day in court before he is relegated to a totalitarian regime," said Kendall Coffey, a lawyer representing the Miami Gonzalezes.

With Elian no longer living in the heart of the Cuban-American exile community of Miami, however, the movement to keep him from returning to Cuba has lost some power. Only 100 protesters, a fraction of the thousands who have flooded the streets in the past, surrounded the house that Elian had lived in with his Miami relatives to decry yesterday's ruling.

The Elian issue has raised to the forefront the intensely felt emotions that many Cuban-Americans, 40 years after Castro took over, harbor. But it has also cast a shadow over such groups as the Cuban American National Foundation, which continues to take a hard line against Cuba even as others seek to lift the U.S. trade embargo and otherwise open up relations with the country.

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