- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2000

The Clinton administration has insisted for months it acted independently in its handling of the Elian Gonzalez case. But Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) e-mail recently made public through the courts indicates that the White House was in very close, and probably daily, communication with the Cuban government to discuss the Elian case. Even more potentially damaging to the administration is an INS memo that strongly suggests the government agency first decided to return Elian to Cuba and later sought to find a legal justification for its decision. In other words, U.S. policy with Cuba, rather than the law, would have been the INS' overriding priority.

An INS e-mail dated Jan. 19 said, "DOS [Department of State] wants to have a daily conference call to coordinate press guidance and communications with the Cubans." If the INS were simply following U.S. laws, irrespective of the concerns of the Cuban government, then why would daily coordination for communications with the Cubans be necessary? This coordination would hardly seem appropriate if the INS were independently resolving immigration issues related to Elian.

Meanwhile, an undated INS e-mail memo asks, "What is INS going to say if someone asks why, if the [regulation] didn't really require us to give notice [to Elian's father], we moved forward as we did?" The memo goes on to say, "As noted, it is my view that the [regulation] is clear. INS has no LEGAL obligation to contact the father. The INS may have no legal basis to make a determination on that issue." (Emphasis in original.) The memo also noted that the INS should quickly move forward on finding appropriate answers to potentially meddlesome legal questions. "These are, in my view, all issues that should have been and/or must be considered very quickly. (It should be noted that I heard that [INS Commissioner Doris] Meissner is on Natl TV tonight on this case)."

Apparently the INS was more concerned about how to cover itself in the media than abiding by the law. It should go without saying that the INS ought to have considered the legal questions first rather than how to "spin them" with the Cubans. The very fact that the agency pondered these legal questions retroactively suggests that another factor, presumably U.S. relations with Cuba, was the primary concern.

These documents appear to make explicit what has been implicit up to now. The White House has bent over backwards to oblige the Cuban government, involving even the president in an immigration matter. Initially the INS said that the question of custody should be resolved by a family court. In a press release dated Jan. 1, 1999, the INS said, "We have discussed this case with State of Florida officials who have confirmed that the issue of legal custody must be decided by its state court." After Cuban dictator Fidel Castro demanded the return of Elian to Cuba, the INS reversed course, claiming the child should be deported if his U.S. asylum petition weren't backed by his father.

The INS ultimately invaded a private American home to seize Elian a move which legal experts across the ideological spectrum have called illegal since the INS lacked a court order mandating a change in custody. Once Elian was placed in his father's custody, the INS allowed Cuban government agents to surround the child.

The combination of INS memos and actions call into question the agency's independence on the Elian matter. Judicial Watch, a public-interest group, should be commended for requesting and obtaining the public release of the memos. If administration officials put pressure on the INS to do the bidding of a communist dictator on the Elian case, the public should know about it. Congress should therefore muster the courage to hold hearings on the administration's handling of the case.

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