Members of Elian Gonzalez's extended family crisscrossed Capitol Hill yesterday, presenting divergent views of what the 6-year-old boy wants and needs and at times nearly running into each other as they walked from congressional office to office.
At 5 p.m., grandmothers Raquel Rodriguez and Mariela Gonzalez--who want him home in Cuba--were with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) in Room 410 of the Cannon House Office Building. During their meeting with Elian in Miami on Wednesday, they said in a brief interview with a reporter, "he seemed like a different boy. He was sad and shy. At first, he didn't talk."
Moments later, one floor below in Cannon 312, great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez--who wants to keep him in Miami--pronounced Elian "happy, as always," as he and a group of other Elian relatives and supporters entered a meeting with Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.). "We're just up here looking for support, and making sure all the laws are obeyed," he said.
Even as political wheels were turning, the legal side of the case was proceeding, albeit not as quickly as the Justice Department would have liked. In Miami yesterday, a federal judge set a six-week timetable for considering a lawsuit filed Jan. 19 by Lazaro Gonzalez--postponing a legal decision on Elian's fate until March at the earliest.
The great-uncle, who has refused to obey an Immigration and Naturalization Service ruling that Elian be reunited with his Cuban father, alleged that Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris M. Meissner violated Elian's constitutional rights in refusing to consider a petition for political asylum filed on his behalf.
The Justice Department had asked U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler to expedite the case over the next two weeks. In its 85-page brief filed last night, along with hundreds of pages of supporting documents, Justice asked Hoeveler to summarily dismiss the case on grounds that INS had followed all pertinent laws and regulations and collected all necessary information in reaching its Jan. 5 ruling. Citing dozens of federal precedents, Justice maintained there were no grounds for overturning the INS decision, and that even if there were, Lazaro Gonzalez had no standing on which to challenge it.
Included in the Justice filing was a State Department statement saying that failure to respect international law, as well as INS regulations, concerning the reuniting of parents and children could set a dangerous precedent for children of U.S. parents being held overseas.
Hoeveler yesterday set a hearing for March 6--the same day a Florida family court that has awarded the great-uncle temporary custody of Elian has set for a custody hearing.
On the political side, opposition appeared to be growing to two Republican bills that would grant Elian instant U.S. citizenship and remove him from INS jurisdiction. If the number of members willing to meet with each side was any indication of congressional sentiment, the grandmothers yesterday won hands down.
They have requested a meeting with President Clinton and said they have not received a response. After the women met last weekend with Reno, the White House said her office was the proper place to address their concerns.
The Miami family, accompanied by the two other Cubans who with Elian were the only survivors of the shipwreck in which his mother and nine others died Thanksgiving week, met with a half-dozen members who already had declared their support.
Starting early this morning, the grandmothers spoke to dozens of members in crowded meetings that participants said usually ended in tears as Gonzalez and Rodriguez recounted their closeness to Elian, his relationship with his father and their alternating happiness and anger during their Wednesday reunion with him.
Contrary to their understanding of the rules for the meeting, the women said, officials from the militant anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation were with the Miami relatives. Assured they would not come into contact with family members, the grandmothers said they were astounded when Elian was brought to them hand in hand with Lazaro Gonzalez's daughter, Marisleysis.
The meeting was at the home of Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, president of a local Catholic college. The grandmothers complained that a visit they thought would be uninterrupted was disturbed four times--once when a Miami police officer removed a cellular telephone on which Elian was talking to his father.
The Cuban Communist Party newspaper Wednesday printed a letter it said was from the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, telling the grandmothers to bring a telephone so he could talk to Elian. Acceding to the wishes of the Miami relatives that no cellular telephones be allowed, INS officials said they told the grandmothers not to bring one, but conceded afterward the instruction might not have been understood. "Nobody told us that," Rodriguez said yesterday.
The grandmothers said they showed Elian photographs of his family and friends in Cuba and things his schoolmates had sent for him, and he began to loosen up. "He hugged us very, very tightly and kissed us many times," Rodriguez said.
His paternal grandmother, Gonzalez, said "We told him we were going through the formalities to bring him home. He didn't answer, but he smiled and I looked into his eyes and I knew" that he was happy, she said.
Meanwhile, O'Laughlin said in an interview with the Associated Press yesterday that before the reunion at her house she thought "the child should be with the father." But what she "saw and felt" during the meeting "really frightened me for the child." She blamed both sides but, without elaboration, cited the Cuban government for trying to manipulate the situation.