Whatever moral authority the Cuban exile community had, it has squandered in the space of a couple of months of insanity over the future of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez.

The child has been turned into an international pawn in the bitter-end fight of Cubans who fled to Miami after Fidel Castro's takeover. Now we have members of the Florida congressional delegation introducing legislation to grant citizenship to the child, a crude ploy to get him out of the jurisdiction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has ruled that the boy should be returned to his father in Cuba.

What is happening is nothing short of kidnapping.

And the irony is that it's the law-and-order Republicans who are leading the charge. These include Rep. Bill McCollum (Fla.), who will always be remembered as one of the most obnoxiously sanctimonious impeachment managers. On the Senate side, legislation to thrust citizenship on little Elian is being sponsored by Connie Mack (Fla.), who ought to know better than to get involved with wrapping up a child in the American flag and then stealing him. These busybodies keep yammering about how much better off Elian would be if he could grow up in the United States, but as far as I can tell, Elian's welfare has not been a priority.

One of the mantras of the exile community has been that Elian's mother, Elizabet, gave her life so the child could be raised in freedom. The fact is nobody really knows what her motives were. The fact is also that she left Cuba with her boyfriend and put her 6-year-old at risk in a boat that was not seaworthy. It is unlikely that she told her former husband, Juan Miguel, of her plans to flee with her boyfriend and son. So in effect she was also severing the boy's ties with his father.

Elian's two grandmothers traveled here last weekend and made an impassioned plea to Attorney General Janet Reno to free the child to return with them to Cuba. Here, at least, are two people who sound like they know what's important to a 6-year-old. They, for example, have not lost sight of the fact that this child's mother drowned. "The retention of Elian in the United States adds to the tragedy of the family over the loss" of Elian's mother, they said in a statement they gave to Reno. "For us, the significance of returning Elian to his family will honor his mother's memory, return the family to normality and, more importantly, return Elian to the normality of life with his father, brother, family, friends at school, his toys, dog and parrot."

The two women, Mariela Quintana and Raquel Rodriguez, also asked Reno to return Elian "to his immediate family and not to his distant family, where [there] had not been a previous relationship."

Whether the boy wants to stay here or return to Cuba is not material. He is only 6, years short of being able to give informed consent to anything. The INS was right to rule he should be returned to his father. But as far as Elian's great uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, is concerned, it was the wrong decision. He filed a federal lawsuit last week seeking an asylum hearing for the boy.

Reno, who has backed the INS, promised the grandmothers she would seek a quick resolution of the matter in federal court. So we could end up with the bizarre situation of a federal court upholding the INS, while Congress is busily passing legislation to make Elian a citizen or a permanent resident, effectively ending his ties with the family he knows best.

His distant family has shown very little understanding of a child's basic need to be with his family, particularly having just lost his mother. They may be smothering him with toys and electronic gadgets, but that can't possibly compensate for the trauma of being separated from the family he loves and trusts. Atop that, they've exposed Elian to a media frenzy that would intimidate a movie star. The ruling principle in resolving disputes about children has been to make the best interests of the child--not of the adults--paramount. Parents prevail in custody disputes unless they are shown to be unfit. These same principles are embedded in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the United States is a signatory.

Elian is hardly the first child to be sent back to his own country. According to the INS, 585 minors were deported in fiscal 1999. (The agency provided voluntary departure for an additional 628 minors that year.) One was deported to China, one to Vietnam, one to Haiti, 150 to Guatemala, 168 to Mexico and 169 to Honduras.

During the year, the agency detained 4,607 juveniles from countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zambia. The group included 648 youngsters from the Chinese mainland. Many detained children are released on voluntary recognizance, usually when the agency finds someone to take care of them so they can stay in the United States.

No one has raised a fuss about these children and their futures. Obviously, they and their families fled conditions that were less than optimum, choosing to enter this country illegally to try to better their lives. But they did not catch the attention of the Cuban American community, which has been poisoning American-Cuban relations every since Castro took over. That they are now using a 6-year-old to do this shows that they will stop at nothing to prevent a long-overdue rapprochement between the two countries.

Kidnapping is against the law. For the Cubans in Miami who never met Elian to lay claim to him when his father wants him returned is outrageous. But what is even more outrageous is to see members of Congress rushing into this madness and trying to cloak kidnapping in respectability. What they're showing the world is that American arrogance knows no bounds.