- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

A federal judge yesterday refused to block efforts to return 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to Cuba, saying the U.S. attorney general has the sole authority to decide asylum and immigration matters.

In a 50-page ruling, U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore dismissed a lawsuit filed by Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who wants to keep the boy in the United States. The father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, a tourism worker from Cardenas, Cuba, has insisted the child be returned to his homeland.

"Determination to grant asylum is a matter within the discretion of the attorney general," wrote Judge Moore, who was appointed by President Bush in 1992. The ruling came 12 days after he held a hearing on the case.

Cuban exiles in Miami expressed anger at the ruling, saying U.S. officials were bowing to threats from Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"This we see once again as a human sacrifice to the Clinton administration's policy toward Castro," said Jose Basulto, leader of the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue exile group.

He said the communist leader had blackmailed the United States by threatening to unleash a refugee exodus.

Attorneys for the family said they would appeal the ruling, focusing on a provision of U.S. asylum law that says any alien has a right to apply for asylum.

Justice Department spokeswoman Carole Florman said officials would "begin an orderly process to reunite Elian and his father."

She refused to say whether the department had a target date for returning the boy. But Justice Department officials have made clear that they want to avoid any steps that would traumatize the child or provoke a confrontation with Miami's large Cuban exile community.

Elian, who has been in the United States for four months, was in school yesterday.

Attorney General Janet Reno praised Judge Moore's ruling, saying the Justice Department was "pleased that the court has sustained our judgment that Elian should be reunited with his father."

It is "time for this little boy, who has been through so very much, to move on with life at his father's side," she said.

Miss Reno said she understood "the very strong emotions that have surrounded this case from the very beginning, but I have every confidence that the community will accept the court's decision and will support the process that reunites Elian with his father."

Spencer Eig, Lazaro Gonzalez's attorney, complained that the ruling was based on legal technicalities rather than the merits of the request for asylum.

"Elian has not had his day in court," said Mr. Eig. "But today's ruling gives us some hope that after we complete the entire legal process including appeals and reconsiderations, he just may."

Mr. Eig said he intends to present new information to the judge about why a 6-year-old boy should be allowed to apply for asylum. If that failed, he said he would take the case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Elian was plucked from the ocean on Nov. 25, after his mother, stepfather and eight others drowned when their boat capsized during an attempted crossing to Florida. He has became the subject of a tug-of-war between Miami Cubans, who consider the boy a symbol of freedom from Castro's rule, and Castro loyalists, who see him as symbol in their struggle against the United States.

In Havana, the Cuban government cautiously welcomed yesterday's ruling.

"We must analyze with serenity and calm the apparently positive news, without underestimating the obstacles and difficulties we still need to overcome," a government statement said.

The statement added that the "encouraging aspects" of the decision "should not make us fall into false optimism or excessive illusions."

Ordinary Cubans reacted with joy.

"That's magnificent news," food delivery worker Toni Drei said in Havana after being told of the Miami court's ruling by a foreign reporter. "Now we want Elian back in Cuba."

Republican lawmakers in Washington said they were saddened by the decision.

"I am disappointed in the federal court's decision and the attorney general's judgment in denying a political asylum hearing to a boy who survived the seas in an escape of an oppressive regime," said Florida Sen. Connie Mack.

Likely Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush issued a written statement saying it would not be clear what Elian's father really wanted until he was allowed to come to the United States and express his will freely.

"I urge Attorney General Janet Reno to reconsider her plans to send Elian back to Cuba, back to the place his mother died trying to escape," Mr. Bush said.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the anti-Castro Democracy Movement, described Judge Moore's ruling as "monstrous" but said his group would stay off the streets during the appeals process.

"We have said that we will respect the legal process and will call no demonstrations while the courts are considering the case," he said.

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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