- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2000

MIAMI A Florida state-court judge yesterday ordered 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to remain in the United States until March, a ruling that delighted the Cuban boy's relatives in Miami and defied a federal government order that the boy be sent back to Cuba by Friday.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez issued a temporary protective order so she can hear arguments filed by Elian's Miami relatives, who are seeking temporary custody of him. The order requires him to remain in the area until the March 6 hearing.

Lazaro Gonzalez, the great-uncle who is seeking temporary custody of Elian, waved a copy of the ruling and yelled "Victory for Elian" in Spanish before going inside the family's home in Little Havana.

"Today is a great day for Elian," said his attorney, Spencer Eig. "[The ruling] will provide Elian Gonzalez his day in court."

If Lazaro Gonzalez is appointed Elian's guardian, he could seek political asylum for the boy.

Elian was found Thanksgiving Day off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, clinging to an inner tube after his mother, stepfather and others drowned while attempting to reach the United States.

In a case that has touched off huge protests in Miami and Cuba, the Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled last week that Elian should be returned to his father in Cuba by Friday a ruling endorsed by both President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno.

The INS said it found that the boy had a close relationship with his father and was ordering Elian back to Cuba because he "belongs with his father."

But the judge said yesterday that the petition from the boy's Miami relatives "contains sufficient verified allegations that if emergency relief is not granted and Elian is returned to Cuba he would be subjected to imminent and irreparable harm, including loss of due process rights and harm to his physical and mental health and emotional well-being."

INS spokeswoman Maria Cardona said the agency would have no comment on the ruling until its lawyers had a chance to examine it. Another INS spokesman, Mike Gilhooly, said: "The INS has no plans to do any enforcement action on Elian. We have no plans to change the custody arrangement of him being with his Miami family." He did not elaborate.

Bernard Perlmutter, director of the University of Miami's Children and Youth Law Clinic, said the judge's decision was "politically popular" but legally wrong. He said the INS can ignore Judge Rodriguez's decision and return the boy to Cuba.

The Cuban government condemned the ruling. Hassan Perez, president of the government's Federation of University Students, told thousands of people gathered at a pro-Elian rally: "Who are these beasts whose hearts do not hear, who fight to keep a child who has become a world symbol?"

[Sen. Bob Smith, New Hampshire Republican, in a letter urging Miss Reno to suspend the Jan. 14 deadline for Elian's return to Cuba, said that he visited the boy on Saturday at Lazaro Gonzalez's home in Miami, and that Elian told him he wanted to stay in the United States.

[He said that in two hours of discussions with Elian and his relatives, he was told that the boy's father in Cuba originally approved of Elian's and his mother's planned escape to the United States and also intended to defect at a later date with his current wife and child.

[But Mr. Smith said he believed Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was intimidated by President Fidel Castro's government. "Reports from family members say that Mr. Gonzalez has been removed from his home and is not speaking of his own free will," Mr. Smith wrote in his letter to Miss Reno, a copy of which was faxed to The Washington Times.]

Mr. Gonzalez has said his ex-wife did not get his permission to take Elian out of Cuba. Mr. Gonzalez, with the backing of the Cuban government, has demanded that his son be returned. But Elian's relatives in Miami say they can give him a better life away from the communist island.

As part of the judge's ruling, Mr. Gonzalez was ordered to appear at the March hearing. Her order said that his "failure to appear may result in a decision adverse to his interests." Mr. Gonzalez has said that he would not travel to the United States to retrieve his son.

The international tug of war over the young boy now includes several efforts by Congress to intervene in his case. On Friday, Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, tried to delay Elian's departure by issuing a subpoena that requires the boy to testify before a House committee Feb. 10.

Also from Capitol Hill, Sen. Jesse Helms is seeking to make the boy a U.S. citizen, while other lawmakers are weighing resident status for the father.

Mr. Helms, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, embraced a citizenship bill originally proposed in late December by Sen. Connie Mack, Florida Republican. Colleagues, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, flocked to add their names to the cause.

Vice President Al Gore has even become involved, questioning earlier yesterday whether the INS had the expertise to decide Elian's fate.

"I'd like to see the dispute adjudicated in our courts, where traditionally questions like what is best for this child are decided," Mr. Gore said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show. "This child's mother died in an effort to get her child's freedom."

At the White House yesterday, President Clinton would not comment on Mr. Gore's remarks.

"Anybody's free to express their opinion about this on whether they think they did right or wrong," the president said. Like Mr. Gore, he also would not comment on Mr. Burton's subpoena.

But the subpoena drew fresh criticism from Robert Edgar of the U.S. National Council of Churches, which sent representatives to visit Elian's father in Cuba and supports the boy's return.

"Little Elian deserves to be reunited immediately with his biological father and closest family members in Cuba," Mr. Edgar said. "The longer this whole process drags on, the more disconnected this small child becomes from those who have raised him and who love him."

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