Fight Over Elian Continues in Front of Cameras By Maggie Fox
Sunday, April 23, 2000; 10:54 a.m. EST
WASHINGTONThe bitter custody battle over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez raged in front of television cameras Sunday with the Miami relatives of the Cuban castaway alternately angry and tearful over the armed government raid to seize the child from their home.
Republican politicians on Sunday morning talk shows criticized the Clinton administration over Saturday's raid, and called for investigations into the Justice Department actions.
A Justice Department official defended the three-minute raid on the Little Havana home of Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, in which armed Immigration and Naturalization Service agents battered down the door and seized the boy.
In fact, just about the only people not standing up to air their views were Elian himself and the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who were reunited on Saturday at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington and who remained out of the sight of cameras.
Republican Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who flew from Miami with members of the Gonzalez family to Washington after Saturday's raid, sponsored a Capitol Hill news conference at which family members, friends and lawyers berated the Justice Department for its action.
"I am ashamed of my government over the past two days," Smith told the lengthy news conference.
A tearful Marileysis Gonzalez, Elian's 21-year-old cousin who had given herself the role of surrogate mother to the boy, brandished a photograph that showed a gun-toting agent reaching for Elian, who was held by fisherman Donato Dalrymple in a closet.
She said there was no call for an armed action.
"There was no guns in that house and thank the Lord there was no guns in that house," she said.
Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder had said his agency had intelligence that guns could be in the house and it would have been irresponsible to have gone in unarmed.
"They lied," Gonzalez said. "We were not armed. All we had was God on our side.
Holder said the government had no choice but to make the raid, because the Gonzalez family refused to turn over Elian to his father, who had traveled to the United States from Cuba to retrieve his son.
"They would agree to nothing. The fundamental thing that they would not agree to was that they would turn the boy over to his father. And then beyond that they always set a series of conditions that were impossible to meet, among them that Juan Miguel (Gonzalez) had to come to Miami, and a variety of other things," Holder told NBC's Meet the Press.
"They never seemed to us to be negotiating in good faith."
The relatives had temporary custody of Elian since he was found floating on an inner-tube off the coast of Florida last November, one of three survivors among a boatload of Cuban refugees who drowned. His mother perished when the boat sank.
Holder said Attorney-General Janet Reno had been negotiating by telephone with Marileysis Gonzalez when the three-minute raid took place, but he said a 10-minute extension of discussions had ended.
"The attorney general was on the phone but at that point the negotiations had ended," he said.
Holder denied the raid was precipitous.
"We were forced into the action that we took by the intransigence of that family in Miami," he said.
"We had an order from a judge who said the government was acting appropriately, we had an order from the INS that said the child had to be transferred," he added.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, said the action was illegal and vowed there would be an investigation.
"You bet there will be congressional hearings," he told NBC. "When I saw what was going down I was outraged, I was sickened and I was ashamed that the United States has for the first time raided a private home without a court order and taken the custody of a child out of the courts and put it into the executive branch."
DeLay said he thought both Congress and the courts shouldinvestigate how the Justice Department could act on its own.
"For first time ... a government agency has raided a private citizen's home without a court order," DeLay said.
"That is outrageous, it is unconstitutional, and it reflects the world view of this government."
Marileysis Gonzalez said the family feared that Elian would be psychologically harmed if he was taken away. But Juan Miguel Gonzalez's lawyer Gregory Craig told NBC that the boy was happy to be with his father.
"Seeing those two together yesterday ... this was a father who had very, very close ties with this son," Craig said on NBC. "The boy was totally at ease and immediately happy in his father's arms."
But Marileysis Gonzalez said a photograph released Saturday showing a smiling and relaxed Elian with his father, stepmother and half-brother could not have been taken on Saturday. She claimed his hair had been cut recently and the photograph showed a boy with longer hair.