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Rare Act of Congress Is Planned for Elian
GOP Leaders Back Citizenship Bills

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2000; Page A03

The number of people who have become U.S. citizens through an act of Congress is small. Some, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa and 17th-century English Quaker William Penn, were made honorary citizens for their valor and good deeds. Citizenship was posthumously bestowed on Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg for his efforts to save European Jews during World War II.

Now, if some lawmakers have their way, another person will be added to these rarefied ranks. Elian Gonzalez, age 6.

Florida Sen. Connie Mack (R) and four House Republicans--three of them from Florida--have said they will introduce bills to make Elian a citizen when Congress reconvenes on Jan. 24.

Swift movement on the measures seems likely, since Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has signed on to Mack's proposal and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is the fourth sponsor of the proposed House bill. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) "is supportive," a spokesman said.

Asked if President Clinton would sign such a bill into law, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said: "We'll deal with that when we get there. We'll take great pains to stay out of the politics of this."

As a citizen, Elian would no longer be a foreigner without legal status in this country, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has ordered him home to Cuba, would have no more say over his fate.

Backers of the measures hope his case would then head to Florida family court, where a Miami judge already has given temporary custody of the boy to his Cuban American great-uncle and has scheduled a March 6 hearing, despite INS insistence that the court has no jurisdiction. There, the boy's future could be argued by his Cuban father, who wants him back, and his Miami relatives, who maintain that life in communist Cuba automatically constitutes child abuse.

"Right now, you have attorneys arguing archaic, confusing and hard-to-understand immigration law," said Mack. "If it's shifted to an issue of custody, the decisions will be made in court. . . . All interested parties will have an opportunity to voice their opinions. The fundamental difference is you go away from being focused on the law to being focused on what's best for the boy."

For his part, Mack said, "I don't understand how the land of freedom can say it's in his best interest to be sent to a place where the government can tell him what he thinks and what he'll become." Mack said he thinks it is appropriate for Elian Gonzalez to take his place alongside Winston Churchill in the hearts and history of Americans. "It's fundamental about who we are as a nation."

Elian's plight would likely have elicited strong emotions from parents, and even members of Congress, no matter where he came from. Cute and photogenic, he is a motherless child with enough pint-sized stamina to have endured two days alone and adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. But because he is Cuban, because his divorced mother drowned while fleeing the island with him, and because he has been claimed by South Florida's politically powerful and highly vocal Cuban community, his case has been propelled into the realms of high politics and foreign policy.

Congress has been in recess since Elian was rescued at sea on Thanksgiving Day, so political debate over his fate has been relegated to home-state news releases, presidential photo-op commentary and candidate statements. But with the all-but-certain failure of INS efforts to get the boy back to Cuba before Congress reconvenes, that is about to change.

"Hopefully, we can address it in the first week we're back," Mack said.

Where it will end is anybody's guess. Although Cuba remains subject to the harshest economic sanctions under U.S. law, congressional sentiment has slowly been shifting toward more normal relations, particularly in the Senate. Clinton has long been considered a closet advocate of normalization and has publicly supported the INS ruling.

But election-year politics--and the tangled family emotions that overlay the international policy aspects of the case--tend toward the unpredictable.

Most members of Congress have said nothing at all about the boy. With few exceptions, the flood of news releases supporting the Americanization of Elian have come from a relatively small group of House and Senate members long-identified with efforts to isolate the regime of Cuban President Fidel Castro. They include Mack, the three Florida GOP House members who say they will sponsor a citizenship bill along with DeLay--Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Bill McCollum--and Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), as well as the co-sponsors of an eponymous 1996 law tightening the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.).

Florida's other senator, Democrat Bob Graham, has asked Attorney General Janet Reno to defer the enforcement of the INS ruling pending "congressional review," which he said should include "possible changes in the law." Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, requested that Reno stay" her decision to send the boy back to Cuba and asked to be personally briefed.

Among other Republican presidential hopefuls, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) have both been critical of the INS and said the issue should be heard in court. So has Vice President Gore, although the other Democratic presidential contender, Bill Bradley, said he didn't want to "second guess" the INS.

But support for legislative intervention has not been unanimous among those who have expressed an opinion. Longtime advocates of normalizing relations with Havana, such as Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), have publicly backed the INS ruling.

Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), a major conservative voice on immigration issues and chairman of the House immigration subcommittee through which the citizenship legislation would normally pass, has been noticeably silent. Asked on Friday to comment on the proposed bills, Smith issued a terse, four-sentence statement calling Elian's case "a sensitive issue that demands careful consideration."

"No one can justify the oppressive, communist government in Cuba," Smith said. "But we should not rush into separating a father and son. If any of us were a parent living in Cuba, as much as we might not like the authoritarian government, we would not want to give up our parental rights."

A Smith spokesman said it would be correct to interpret the statement as a non-endorsement of citizenship via legislation.

Smith's Senate counterpart, immigration subcommittee Chairman Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), has said that it is "appropriate for courts to examine" Elian's case. But he has not commented on the citizenship issue.

"Private bills," those bestowing benefits on a single individual, have been around since the beginning of the Republic. Once common, their popularity "tailed off considerably after the Abscam affair in 1980," according to former INS general counsel David Martin.

During the Abscam federal bribery investigation, undercover agents posing as foreign businessmen offered members of Congress cash in exchange for "one particular favor," Martin said in a recent interview with National Public Radio. "And that was the passage of a private bill to change their immigration status."

Today, Congress generally frowns on private immigration bills as opening the door to suspicions of special favors and unwanted hordes of "me, too" petitioners. "The overwhelming majority of members of Congress refuse to introduce a private bill under any circumstances," said Washington immigration lawyer Michael A. Maggio, who has tried to push his share of such bills.

The few that are introduced more often than not die a quiet death in the immigration subcommittees and never make it to the full judiciary committees, let alone to the House or Senate floor. In the last Congress, only one such bill became law--former New York Republican senator Alfonse M. D'Amato's petition to grant resident-alien status to Swiss banker Michel Meilei, who lost his job for saving Holocaust-era bank documents from a shredder.

But congressional sources said that with support from the Republican leadership, it is quite likely that legislation granting citizenship to Elian would bypass the committees altogether and go directly to the floors of the two chambers.

Although time has grown short, the Justice Department holds out hope that it can move the issue onto the federal docket this week--a venue where it believes the INS will prevail--and thus satisfy congressional demands for Elian's day in court.

Should that effort fail and legislation succeed, the INS and senior administration officials maintain that citizenship wouldn't affect the right of Elian's father to take him home. "There's no guarantee that a citizen remains in the United States," said Martin. "U.S. citizen children move with their parents to foreign countries all the time."

The path to such an outcome is littered with obstacles, however. Taking Elian to Cuba before the Florida custody hearing would require wresting the boy from the possession of his Miami relatives.

If the custody case does go to Florida court, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez has said Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, must appear. But Gonzalez has said he will never give in to "that mafia" in Miami by showing up on its turf.

Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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