Florida relatives of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez agreed last night to bring the boy to a meeting with his Cuban grandmothers in a "neutral location" in Miami today, after the federal government threatened Elian's immigration status in this country.
Justice Department officials said that grandmothers Raquel Rodriguez and Mariela Gonzalez, who spent yesterday in Washington, would return to Miami for the 4 p.m. meeting. Under the agreement, they will visit with Elian alone, with no time restriction, at the home of the president of Barry University, a local Catholic college.
Relatives in Miami, who have refused to send Elian home to his Cuban father despite an Immigration and Naturalization Service ruling early this month, received reassurances that "no Cuban officials" would be present and that the grandmothers understood "it was only a visit and Elian would not be leaving with them," according to U.S. government officials. Officials also told the relatives that after the meeting Elian he would return to the house in Miami's Little Havana where he has been staying.
Although an INS letter to attorneys representing the Miami relatives had set a 3:30 p.m. deadline yesterday for them to respond, it was not until evening that the agreement was struck.
While they waited, the grandmothers visited sympathetic legislators on Capitol Hill and urged Congress not to force citizenship on Elian. President Clinton said he would not rule out a veto of a citizenship bill, saying that "at a minimum, I would like to see this court case played out before the Congress takes action."
Political momentum on the Elian controversy was slowed somewhat yesterday by the snowstorm that kept much of Washington home from work. The Justice Department put off for at least a day asking the U.S. District Court in Miami for expedited consideration of a federal lawsuit filed by the Florida relatives.
In Congress, meetings in which lawmakers planned to devise strategies to support or oppose citizenship bills were delayed. But an informal survey of some members in the House and Senate indicated that opinion on the matter was divided, despite strong support from the leadership in both chambers. Sponsors of bills introduced Monday said their goal was to take the case out of the hands of the INS and allow it to be decided by a Florida family court.
Yesterday's INS ultimatum, sent in a letter to attorneys for the Miami relatives, came after a tense standoff Monday between the relatives and grandmothers, who had traveled to Miami hoping to meet with Elian.
Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy's paternal great-uncle with whom he has been living since he was rescued from a Thanksgiving week shipwreck in which his mother drowned, said the meeting could take place only in his Little Havana home, where dozens of relatives had gathered and hundreds were demonstrating in the streets.
The grandmothers insisted on a neutral location--at one point suggesting the home of another great-uncle. The Miami family rejected that offer, and Lazaro Gonzalez told the women by cell phone that "this is Elian's new home now," sources said.
After a five-hour wait, the women left, flying back to Washington aboard a plane chartered by their U.S. sponsors, the National Council of Churches.
The sharply worded INS letter recounted the events of Monday and said the INS was "obliged to direct Lazaro Gonzalez to make Elian available for a visit with his grandmothers" at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Miami Beach home of Dominican Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin.
The letter noted that Elian had been "temporarily paroled into the United States," pending an inspection interview with the child by INS authorities, which must take place before INS can enforce its Jan. 4 order that he be reunited with his father. It also said that regulations authorized the government to "place conditions" on that parole. Failure to respond, the INS said, "will be construed as a refusal to make Elian available for the meeting and as a breach of Elian's parole."
U.S. officials said that they had been prepared to ask for an emergency federal court order to force the hearing if the relatives did not agree.
While a small minority of politicians have been outspoken in their support for keeping Elian in the United States, both Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided on the subject.
Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), who represents a swing district in San Diego, criticized his party's leadership for being quick to support congressional intervention in Elian's case.
"I think a lot of people in this country know he would live a more prosperous and freer life in the United States, but I think part of this family values is the father," Bilbray said. "There's a whole lot of my colleagues who want to pander on this issue."
Several conservative Republicans, such as Steve Largent (Okla.) and Robert W. Goodlatte (Va.), also support returning the boy to Cuba on the basis of parental rights.
But John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said, "We support what's doing the best thing for this child, which is getting it to the courtroom so it can be completed with due process."
Though polls indicate a majority of Americans support sending Elian back to his father, Republicans said lawmakers who oppose it feel strongly enough that they would not bow to public opinion.
If they became law, the bills introduced in the Senate by Connie Mack and in the House by Bill McCollum, both Florida Republicans, would mark the first time an individual had been naturalized by act of Congress. A separate bill, introduced by House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Robert Menendez (N.J.), would give Elian permanent residency. Menendez said he hoped his bill could attract "a broader base of support" than the citizenship legislation.
But other Democrats are fiercely opposed to both bills. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who yesterday introduced a sense of Congress resolution that Elian should be reunited with his father, said lawmakers who vote for the two citizenship measures "would want to show they're against communism, dictatorship and Castro, and the kid would still be a pawn."
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), one of several Democrats who hosted the grandmothers in bipartisan meetings yesterday, said that the Republican leadership "is elevating this thing to a pathetic level."
"Whatever one feels about Fidel Castro," Dodd said, supporters of keeping Elian in this country "are allowing their hatred for an old man in Cuba to interfere with the love of a father and a son."
Staff writer Sue Anne Pressley contributed to this report from Miami.
CAPTION: Elian Gonzalez, 6, is scheduled to meet today with his grandmothers at the home of the president of a Catholic college in Florida.
CAPTION: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) comforts Mariela Gonzalez, left, after meeting with her and Elian Gonzalez's other grandmother, Raquel Rodriguez, right, at her Capitol Hill office. Congressional debate continued to flourish on what to do about the boy.