From the start, the story of Elian Gonzalez has had the makings of a modern-day legend.
To some, his survival in the open ocean for two days - clinging to an inner tube, with no food or water - was a product of divine intervention. When sharks prowled nearby, the boy has told relatives, dolphins arrived to protect him.
Today, Elian's saga moves to the US courthouse here, and many in Miami's Little Havana are praying for a different kind of protection for the boy. They are hoping a federal judge will grant Elian an opportunity to stay in the US, despite his father's plea that the six-year-old be returned to Cuba.
US and international law favor the boy's return to his father, most legal experts say. But some lawyers say Elian should be granted an asylum hearing before the US decides whether he should be sent back, perhaps to live out his life under a communist dictatorship.
"This isn't a family law issue. This is an immigration issue," says Roger Bernstein, a Miami immigration lawyer working to keep Elian in the US. "The sole determination is whether Elian is entitled to an asylum hearing."
Others say more is at stake than the future of a little boy. They say the case could set a dangerous precedent that would jeopardize American parents' ability to regain custody when their children are embroiled in legal proceedings in foreign courts.
Some say Elian should be treated like any other child who arrives in the US without a parent. "The immigration service sends home 14,000 unaccompanied minors each year," says Emily Thomas of the ad-hoc National Committee to Return Elian to His Father in Cuba. "The law is clear. It is just a question of whether the law is obeyed."
The federal court case, which had been delayed several weeks, comes more than three months after Elian was plucked from the sea. He and two others were the only survivors in a dangerous journey across the Florida Straits to America. Elian's mother, stepfather, and nine others died.
Today, Judge K. Michael Moore is expected to hear two to three hours of testimony in the case. It is unclear when he will issue his ruling.
Government lawyers say Attorney General Janet Reno has the sole discretion to determine if a young boy can ask for asylum against the wishes of his father. Ms. Reno has decided that Elian's father has the authority under US law to speak for his son.
Lawyers for Elian's great-uncle in Miami - who has temporary custody of the boy - counter that Congress allows sanctuary hearings for people who fear harm if returned to their native countries.
In tearful testimony last week before a Senate subcommittee, Elian's cousin, who has become a surrogate mother to the boy, said she believes Elian's father secretly wants his son to remain in Miami. Marisleysis Gonzalez suggested that the father, Manuel Gonzalez, can't reveal his true feelings without facing harsh treatment from communist authorities.
US immigration officials who met with Mr. Gonzalez in Cuba came to a different conclusion. They say Elian's father spoke truthfully and candidly about his desire for his son's return.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society