AS AN ABSTRACTION, Elian Gonzalez is the subject of a simple immigration matter. As a 6-year-old boy, photographed for all the country to see smiling in the arms of his relatives, Elian Gonzalez is a reminder that there are no simple immigration matters. Every day, people's lives are directed one way or another by American immigration law; now one of these has broken out of bureaucratic anonymity and presented the country with a difficult flesh-and-blood reality, greatly complicated by domestic and international politics.

Elian was rescued at sea after his mother and nine others attempting to flee Cuba died in the sinking of their boat. On Wednesday Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, announced that her agency had found no reason why Elian should not be returned to his father in Cuba. The decision was immediately denounced by some Cuban Americans, who plan to contest it in court; hundreds took to the streets of Miami yesterday, blocking access to the port and occupying several busy intersections. There is the possibility of uglier physical confrontation ahead: American authorities having to take the child by force from angry relatives and protesters.

Some dismiss this as a furor over nothing much. "If this child came from anywhere else, he would have been home within 48 hours," said an immigration law professor quoted yesterday by the Associated Press. That's probably not quite true (Iraq? Burma? Sudan?), but in any event, if he'd come here from anywhere else, it likely wouldn't have been from a place where the inhabitants are, for the most part, forbidden to leave the country.

It is the repressive nature of the Castro regime that raises doubts--not so much about whether Elian ought to be reunited with his father as about what the father's true feelings and desires are regarding the boy's future, and his own. Commissioner Meissner acted on the basis of INS interviews with the father in Cuba. She cited his "close and continuous relationship with his son," even after he and Elian's mother were divorced.

We have argued here that some procedure ought to be devised to ensure that Elian's best interests are protected and that his father's wishes are made clear. That still seems to us the ideal way to resolve this unhappy situation: Elian Gonzalez ought to be able to meet in the United States with his father (and whatever other relatives might wish to visit from Cuba) in a protected and relaxed setting for as long a time as they need to decide about their lives.

But it also seems clear that, given a case that can't possibly end to everyone's satisfaction, the INS in this case has acted according to principle, and with as little regard to politics as could be wished for. It's an understatement to say that Fidel Castro did Elian no favor when he immediately turned his case into a trumped-up anti-American crusade. Many of the Cuban Americans who want to keep Elian in this country are acting in what they believe to be his best interests, but those seeking to capitalize on the boy's sad loss and cute grin for their own political ends similarly do the boy no good. Elian, like all Cubans, is a victim of Mr. Castro's dictatorship. But if it can be established that he has a loving father who wants to raise his son, that is where the son belongs.