Attorney General Janet Reno said today she sees "no basis" for reversing the decision by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to return Elias Gonzalez, the 6-year-old boy in Miami who has become a political symbol in a fight over his custody, to his father in Cuba.
Reno received a letter from attorney Spencer Eig in Floriday yesterday asking her to reverse the INS order. But at her weekly press briefing, Reno said INS Commissioner Doris Meissner had consulted with her on the decision after learning that the boy's father expressed a strong desire through INS officials to be reunited with his son in Cuba.
"What they took into consideration is who, under the law, can speak for the six-year old boy who really can't speak for himself," Reno said. "He has a father. And there is a bond between father and son that the law recognizes and tries to honor. We had no information that would indicate that that legal connection, that bond, should not be honored."
Reno said the boy's custody ought to be determined by his father's wishes, rather than by the arguments of those in Miami who say he would have a better life if he were permitted to stay in the United States. Amid a charged debate, the child has been staying with his great-uncle in Miami since his mother and nine others perished in a shipwreck after fleeing Cuba.
Reno said U.S. officials were confident after interviewing the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, that he was "speaking for himself" and not constrained by fear of political repercussions from Cuban leader Fidel Castro. A former Miami prosecutor, Reno appealed for the community she said she loves to deal "openly, candidly and thoughtfully" with the matter and also to respect the law and what's right.
"There is something about a six-year-old boy and his father," Reno said. "He has got just his father left in terms of parents. Let us work together to get him the relationship that the law . . . suggests is proper."
The case was spurred debate this morning in Miami and on the presidential campaign trail.
Members of Miami's large Cuban-American community took to the streets to protest the U.S. government's decision to return 6-year-old refugee Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba, tying up traffic on major thoroughfares with organized slowdowns and gathering at a rally outside the federal building downtown.
Ramon Saul Sanchez of the anti-Castro group, Democracy Movement, called for "all Cuban exiles and friends" to join in a brief work stoppage at 1 p.m. today. Sanchez described the action "as a way of sending a strong message to the Clinton administration that we demand for the child Elian Gonzalez his day in court."
The police presence was heavy at the noon rally as a small but intense crowd gathered outside the Claude Pepper federal building. A handful of hunger-strikers set up a small white tent on a grassy area nearby, vowing to stop eating until Elian is allowed to remain in the United States.
Campaigning in New Hampshire this morning Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) the INS decision. "The only people who have been sent back to Cuba in the past are criminals," McCain complained. "I think the president of the United States ought to exercise some leadership and allow this young man to remain."
Vice President Al Gore was distancing himself from the decision while on the trail in Manchester, N.H., this morning. Without expressly disavowing the Clinton administration's ruling, Gore said he wants the appeals process to go forward and repeated his position that no decision about the boy's fate should be made until the father can express his preference about where he wants to live on "free soil."
Disagreeing with the view of INS officials Gore said he is not convinced that the boy's father was not coerced by the Castro regime into saying that he prefers to live with his son in Cuba. "In the absence of clear evidence that he is speaking and acting without fear, then I think that we should apply the due process that is normally followed" appealing the IN's decision, Gore said.
Washington Post staff writers Sue Anne Pressley in Miami, David Von Drehle in New Hampshire and John F. Harris in New Hampshire contributed to this report.