- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2000

The Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez will appeal a federal court ruling that found the 6-year-old Cuban castaway does not have the right to political asylum in this country, without his father's approval.

Attorneys for the relatives, who announced the appeal plans yesterday on Sunday news talk shows, disclosed they may seek a review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the question of whether an alien has a constitutional right to seek political asylum in the United States.

"That's our focus right now, and we've been spending all weekend studying those issues of the constitutional right to seek asylum and is it a sufficiently important issue that the Supreme Court might have an interest in it," Kendall Coffey, lead attorney for the family of Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, said yesterday on ABC's "This Week."

Manny Diaz, another lawyer for Elian's Miami relatives, confirmed on CNN's "Late Edition" that his clients definitely will appeal the ruling issued Thursday by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

Both Mr. Diaz, a Cuban exile who, like Elian, arrived in the United States when he was 6 years old and Mr. Coffey said it is not yet certain whether their clients will be asking the 11th Circuit to reconsider the case or if they will be appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Coffey said a "preliminary decision" will be reached in the next few days.

The panel ruled unanimously Thursday that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was empowered to decide that only a parent can seek asylum for a child as young as Elian.

Said Mr. Diaz on CNN: "We believe there are issues regarding an alien's constitutional right to apply for political asylum and be granted a hearing. There are the independent rights of children, constitutionally protected when those rights may conflict with the interest of a parent. There is the issue."

Mr. Coffey said federal courts "disagree" about whether "there is a constitutional right [for aliens] to seek asylum."

"The Atlanta court has long held that there is no such right. Other courts disagree," the lawyer said, adding:

"The 5th Circuit, headquartered in New Orleans, the 2nd Circuit in New York find that there is a constitutional right to seek asylum."

Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, interviewed on CNN's "Late Edition," said, "I don't think the [federal judicial] circuits really are split" on the question of a refugee's right to asylum.

Mr. Holder said the other legal cases Mr. Coffey cited do not deal with a "6-year-old, who's trying to seek a political asylum hearing." As a result, he said, he believes the Elian Gonzalez case "really stands on its own facts."

In its ruling Thursday, the three-judge panel of the Atlanta appeals court dismissed Lazaro Gonzalez's appeal of a lower court ruling. It also gave him 14 days to ask the panel to rehear the case, to ask all 12 judges of the 11th Circuit to consider it or to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Immediately after the 11th Circuit judges rendered their opinion, lawyers for Lazaro Gonzalez filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, seeking an emergency order barring Elian's removal to Cuba on June 15. That is the date when the 14-day deadline for action by the Miami relatives would expire.

"I'd be very surprised if the 11th Circuit decides to rehear the case sitting in its entirety, and I'd be very, very surprised if the Supreme Court decided to hear it," Mr. Holder said on CNN.

"I think we're at the beginning of the end here, and I would expect that this matter … would be over in a matter of weeks and not months," the senior Justice Department official said.

Gregory Craig, the attorney for Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, shared that thinking in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." He said he hopes the Miami relatives "will recognize that, legally speaking, this case is really over, and that to prolong the legal battle would be a mistake."

More litigation will only "further divide the family," when members should be "reaching out to each other, trying to reconnect and rebuild their relationship."

But family members in Miami question how they can do that when they are unable to meet with Elian and his father. Asked on NBC if they will be allowed to meet with Elian before he returns to Cuba, Mr. Craig said: "The odds are bad, at this point, particularly if they pursue the appeal."

He charged that the Miami relatives have never "directly approached" Juan Miguel Gonzalez about such a meeting, but Mr. Coffey said that is "not true."

On CNN, Mr. Diaz said efforts to reach Juan Miguel Gonzalez to try to arrange a meeting will continue. "But if none of that works, then we have a group of lawyers that are potentially considering some kind of legal challenge to make that possible," he said.

He declined to be specific about "what the action might look like." But "that is under serious consideration right now," Mr. Diaz said.

Elian Gonzalez the subject of a continuing legal battle was shipwrecked late last year as he, his mother and others tried to flee Cuba. The boy has been in this country since Thanksgiving, when he was found floating in an inner tube off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Elian's mother and her boyfriend drowned when the boat they were in capsized.

Until April 22, Elian was cared for by his great-uncle at his home in Miami's "Little Havana." But after Lazaro Gonzalez lost temporary custody of the child, the INS seized Elian during an armed pre-dawn raid and reunited him with his father. The father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who has been in the United States since April 6, has made it clear he plans to return Elian to Cuba when he is allowed to do so.

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