Anticipating a decision by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to send 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez home to Cuba, U.S. officials have asked the Cuban government to help arrange for the boy's father to travel to Miami to pick him up.

American authorities hope the appearance of the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, and his clear desire to take custody of his son, will limit a legal and emotional backlash from Florida's large Cuban-American community, according to a U.S. official. Elian has become a cause celebre among militant exiles opposed to Cuba's Communist government who have demanded that he be allowed to remain with relatives in this country.

The appeal to Cuba came after INS officials met for a second time with Gonzalez--a meeting that took place in Havana on New Year's Eve. Cuba responded that it would take "under advisement" a U.S. request that it facilitate an exit visa for the father, according to the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Under preliminary plans discussed in weekend consultations involving the INS, the State Department and the Justice Department, Gonzalez would be issued an emergency U.S. visa, flown to Miami and brought to the home of Miami relatives where Elian is staying, perhaps accompanied by a Roman Catholic priest, the official said. Although the relatives--who would be informed in advance--could seek a temporary restraining order in federal court against the INS decision, legal custody of Elian would immediately revert to his father, who would be free to leave the country with him.

The issue is a touchy one for Cuba, because both Gonzalez and President Fidel Castro have publicly rejected such a trip, insisting that the United States has unilateral legal responsibility to return the boy with no action on their part. In informal queries over the weekend, Havana sought confirmation that an INS decision would be announced before Gonzalez reached Miami.

Washington is similarly nervous about arranging a sequence of events leading to Elian's return in advance of a decision that the INS technically has not yet made. But in the weekend discussions, U.S. officials agreed that the biggest remaining impediment to resolution of the six-week-old impasse is the reaction of the Cuban-American community.

Elian was found floating in an inner tube off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day, one of three survivors of a shipwreck in which 10 Cubans drowned, including his mother. Brought to shore by two fishermen, the boy was released into the custody of his paternal great-uncles and aunts, Cubans who have lived in Miami since the early 1960s.

His parents were divorced, and the family in Cuba insists he was taken from the country by his mother without his father's permission. Backed by Elian's two sets of grandparents in Cuba--and by the Cuban government--the father demanded that the child be returned. But the Miami relatives have refused to send him home.

Much to the outrage of Castro, who has charged the Miamians with trying to "brainwash" the boy, they have showered him with gifts and trips to Florida tourist attractions, all within television camera range, and prompted such public utterances from him as "I love Miami." Their cause has been taken up by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and by many in Congress, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who has said he will introduce a bill granting Elian immediate U.S. citizenship.

For its part, the Cuban government has mobilized mass demonstrations around the country demanding Elian's return and has charged that the crisis is a direct result of U.S. immigration policies that encourage Cubans to leave the island nation in unseaworthy craft. The Gonzalez family also has prominent American supporters, including the National Council of Churches, whose representatives met with Elian's father and grandparents yesterday in their home town, Cardenas, east of Havana.

While the Clinton administration initially appeared tempted to use the controversy to highlight its antipathy toward Castro's government, saying it proves how desperate Cubans are to flee, it quickly decided to distance itself from what it saw as a position of questionable legal merit. In recent weeks, senior administration officials have described the case as purely an INS matter.

Elian's current status is that of an INS parolee who, under immigration law applicable only to Cubans, is eligible to apply for permanent U.S. residence in one year. But since he is underage, his legal representative would have to apply for him--or decline to make such an application.

Although lawyers for the Miami relatives have indicated that they may try to move the case into the jurisdiction of state family court in Florida, they have not done so, and the INS insists that the case remains a federal matter. "The governing law is immigration law," said INS spokesman Russ Bergeron. "We're not making a decision on custody, but on who has the right to speak for the child" on immigration matters. A decision made in favor of the father would give him the option of declining to request permanent status for Elian. The INS has set a Jan. 21 hearing in Elian's case, but Bergeron emphasized that "we can arrive at a decision any time before Jan. 21."

INS officials first met with Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the father, in early December, when he presented them with birth certificates and other documentation proving paternity and his status as an active parent. Later last month, officials met with the Miami relatives, who U.S. officials said told them, among other things, that they believed Gonzalez was "under duress" from the Cuban government to maintain a hard line in the matter.

The allegation led to the New Year's Eve meeting, held with no Cuban officials present, at the home of the UNICEF representative in Havana. Gonzalez "said he was not speaking under duress," said the U.S. official. "He said he really did want his son returned; he was fairly emphatic that those reports were not correct," the official said. Gonzalez, the official said, expressed "some confusion" as to why the process was taking so long "and growing annoyance" at the delays.