Divide grows over Elian's future

Washington and Miami seem further apart as boy's case enters a critical week.

Ada Mejia spends up to eight hours every day standing vigil outside Elian Gonzalez's house. She says she is not worried about international legal precedents or the fine points of US immigration and family law.

All she wants is for Elian to live free in Miami. "The mother gave her life for this boy's freedom, and it should be respected," says Mrs. Mejia, mother of a three-year-old son.

But experts in international child-custody disputes say Elian's case isn't just about the future of one child. The high-profile legal battle and the precedent it establishes could undermine efforts to gain the return of some 1,100 American children currently being raised in foreign countries against the wishes of US parents.

As the international tug-of-war between Elian's father in Cuba and his relatives in Miami enters what is expected to be a critical week, the emotional struggle is highlighting a growing chasm between the Clinton administration - which views the case from a national perspective - and the highly vocal Cuban-American community - which views the case primarily from a local perspective.

It is no coincidence that most of those standing vigil outside Elian's house are waving Cuban flags, rather than American flags.

The administration is looking for a peaceful way to end the impasse between immigration officials, who want to return Elian to his father in accord with US law and international treaties, and Elian's Miami relatives, who now appear unwilling to surrender custody - even to his father - because they say the boy doesn't want to return to Cuba.

Analysts say this apparent disregard for the rule of law may spark a public-opinion backlash against the Miami relatives and the Cuban American community, particularly if Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, travels to the US to be reunited with his son, only to be thwarted by intransigent relatives.

In addition, experts in international and family law say the case could damage international legal precedents by undermining the concept of what Attorney General Janet Reno calls the "sacred bond between parent and child."

"This is just a further erosion of parental rights in this country," says Michael McCormick, head of the California-based American Coalition for Fathers and Children. "What we are seeing are people who are not even close family relatives of this boy who are trying to take him away from his father. That is very dangerous."

On the other side, the dispute has united and energized the Cuban-American community unlike any other issue in recent history. As a result it has raised the specter of violent demonstrations and potential political fallout in an election year.

"There are people who are willing to give their lives - anything to support Elian," says Mejia.

Elian's case deserves special treatment, Mejia and other Cuban-American supporters say, because it would be immoral to send a child back to a country ruled by a communist dictator. In addition, they say, the boy would likely face brainwashing and reindoctrination upon his return.

The growing chasm between Miami and Washington was brought into sharp focus last week when Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas put President Clinton and Ms. Reno on notice that local police would not help federal marshals seeking to enforce federal law by returning the boy to his father. It was a level of open defiance that some analysts compare to Southern governors rejecting enforcement of federal civil rights laws in the 1950s.

The national interests and legal precedents at stake also appear to have played little role in the decisions of both presidential candidates, George W. Bush and, more recently, Al Gore, to support special legislation in Congress to grant Elian and his family in Cuba permanent US resident status.

The legal effect of such legislation would be to strip the Clinton administration of jurisdiction in Elian's case and move it instead to a family court. An elected judge would face enormous political pressure to grant full custody to the Miami relatives, regardless of the merits of the father's case, analysts say.

Such a development would set a new precedent that could give judges in foreign courts a green light to make their own ad hoc determinations of whether an American child caught in an international custody dispute should be returned to a parent in the US.

"Any time we don't follow our own laws and procedures in a case involving a child there are going to be problems," says Nancy Hammer, head of the international division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va.

How the Elian saga will end is unclear. But several analysts say it does not have to become violent.

Immigration officials have the authority to revoke permission for Elian to remain in the US and order his great uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, to turn him over to federal officials at the federal courthouse or immigration headquarters. There is no requirement that officials run a gantlet of hostile protesters to physically remove Elian from his great-uncle's home. Child psychologists say such a confrontation would be traumatic for the little boy.

If Lazaro refuses to turn over the boy, the government may seek a federal court order. If he disobeys that, he can be fined and/or jailed until he complies.

Despite the government's position, many Cuban-Americans like Mejia are optimistic that somehow Elian will stay in the US. To some, it is a question of faith.

"I feel that God will do the miracle, because He wouldn't want Elian to be in a place where there is no freedom, no food, nothing," Mejia says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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