- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

Congressional leaders backed away from a campaign to make 6-year-old shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez an American citizen Thursday amid new appeals from the boy's exhausted Cuban grandmothers.
The paternal and maternal grandmothers, Mariela Quintana and Raquel Rodriguez, who have shuttled up and down the East Coast since arriving from Cuba a week ago, made their second appearance on Capitol Hill Thursday one day after a brief reunion with Elian in Miami.
As the women, one of whom suffered a fainting spell, shuttled from office to office appealing for the boy's return, Republican leaders in the House and Senate indicated for the first time they were unenthusiastic about prospects for a bill to make Elian an American citizen.
"Politicians just have to step aside" on some issues, said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, who supports the legislation.
After a meeting with fellow Republicans, Mr. Hastert declined to predict the bill's fate saying there was "a difference of opinion."
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, also a supporter of the bill, said he is undecided about a timetable. Earlier, Mr. Lott had backed quick action on the measure.
The visit came one day after the grandmothers met Elian in a reunion that added yet another bizarre twist to the international custody battle that has highlighted the Cold War hatreds that continue to rage across the Straits of Florida.
The nun who hosted the Miami reunion on Monday, Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, said she had been inclined to support the boy's return to his father in Cuba but changed her mind when the meeting was over.
"I do not think that that child will be able to live without fear if he goes back," Sister O'Laughlin told Fox TV local affiliate WSVN.
She blamed both sides but specifically cited Fidel Castro's government for trying to manipulate the situation.
At one point in the meeting, one of the grandmothers' cellular phones went off and was confiscated. A letter issued Wednesday by the Cuban Communist Party from the boy's father and grandfather in Cuba said they would call during the meeting.
In Cuba, an editorial in Thursday's Communist daily Granma said "the loving and heroic grandmothers" were treated shabbily, and that the reunion was repeatedly interrupted and abruptly cut short.
The boy's Florida relatives had been counting on the citizenship bill to protect the boy from an order by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that Elian be returned to Cuba.
"He doesn't want to go back," said Marisleysis Gonzalez, a cousin of Elian. "I saw him approach his grandmothers and had the opportunity to see his face, and it was still the face of fear."
On Capitol Hill Thursday, the grandmothers described Elian as "a different boy."
"He's changed completely," said Mrs. Quintana, the boy's paternal grandmother. "We have to save him as soon as possible and bring him back to his family in Cuba."
The boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, has thus far refused to come to the United States to seek custody of his son, who was plucked from shark-infested waters off Florida's east coast on Thanksgiving Day after clinging to an inner tube for two days and nights.
Elian and two others survived the tragedy in which his mother and nine other refugees drowned.
In another move, the Justice Department Thursday asked a federal judge in Miami to dismiss a bid by Elian's great-uncle, who is seeking custody of the boy.
In a lengthy filing in U.S. District Court in Miami, Justice Department lawyers said a Florida state court lacked jurisdiction because the INS had ruled that only the father can speak for the boy.
It also said a victory in the case for the boy's relatives would "ignore accepted international practice in cases involving a sole surviving parent."
In addition to seeking custody, the boy's Miami relatives are attempting to win an INS asylum hearing for the boy.
Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez has granted temporary custody to the great-uncle and has scheduled a custody hearing for March.
A dismissal of the suit by a federal judge would pave the way for the INS to enforce its order that Elian be returned to Cuba.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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