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February 2000, Volume 7, Number 2

Cuba: Elian Gonzalez

The INS on January 5, 2000 said that six-year old Elian Gonzalez "belongs with his father," and would be returned to Cuba by January 14, 2000. The boy's relatives in Florida filed suit to stop his return and the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight issued a subpoena to Elian, ordering him to appear on February 10, 2000. Several Congressmen introduced private immigration bills that would make Elian a US citizen.

The court battles and Congressional actions are expected to keep Elian in the US until at least March 2000.

In ordering the return of Elian to Cuba, the INS noted that "Family reunification has long been a cornerstone of both American immigration law and U.S. practice. There is no question that Mr. Gonzalez is Elian's father. Moreover, he has had a close and continuous relationship with his son." International law requires that child taken without permission should be returned to his or her "habitual" country of residence unless a showing can be made in court that there is "grave risk" of physical or psychological harm.

The INS considers Elian an "unaccompanied minor." About 5,000 unaccompanied minors are apprehended each year by the INS, mostly teenage boys from China, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and most are returned home quickly.

A Florida judge gave Elian's Miami-area relatives temporary custody, concluding that Elian was in danger of being abused if he were returned to Cuba, but the state judge's ruling was declared null and void by the INS. The INS maintains that only Elian's father in Cuba can apply for asylum on his behalf. Elian's mother and nine others drowned when their boat capsized during their attempt to reach Cuba; the boy was rescued by two fishermen on November 25, 1999 and brought to Florida.

Protestors in Miami blocked the port and slowed traffic en route to the airport after the INS announced that Elian would be returned to Cuba. Most of the Republican presidential contenders criticized the INS decision and the leading Democrats did not endorse it.

The National Council of Churches, which includes 35 Protestant and Orthodox denominations with 52 million members, strongly advocated Elian's return to Cuba, and helped arrange for Elian's grandmothers to come to the US to help arrange his return. Elian's grandmothers met with him in late January in Miami; 200 demonstrators protested outside the home where the meeting took place.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the Elian Gonzalez case illustrates how relatively well-off Cubans are coming to south Florida with the help of for-profit smugglers. About 2,500 Cubans made it to Florida between October 1998 and December 1999—if they reach US soil, they can stay. About 1,500 Cubans were intercepted at sea and returned to Cuba.

Both the US and Cuba prosecute smugglers—the US prosecuted 46 in 1999 and Cuba has cases pending against 53 smugglers. Cuba sentences some smugglers to life imprisonment; a Florida jury sentenced a smuggler to 16 months in prison.

Haiti. Black leaders used the Elian Gonzalez case to protest what they called a double standard—400 Haitian migrants whose ship ran aground in Miami on New Year's eve were returned to Haiti. One woman was admitted to the US to apply for asylum; her two children were returned to Haiti and then permitted to join her in Florida.

An estimated one million of the eight million Haitians would emigrate if they could. In FY99, about 20,000 Haitians applied for immigrant visas; 9,000 were granted. Another 50,000 applied for tourist visas; 19,000 were granted. More and more Haitians are trying to be smuggled into Florida. Most leave from Tortue Island, an island of 29,000 people that lacks electricity, phones and running water, for the four- to five-day voyage to Florida. Most report paying about $5,000, half up front and half after their arrival—migrants are often held in a safe house in Miami until their relatives pay the rest of the smuggling fee.

Dominicans try to cross the Mona Passage that separates the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico in small boats so that they can take domestic flights from Puerto Rico to the US; at least 26 died when a boat sank in January 2000.

Cindy Loose, "Most Unaccompanied Minors Quickly Sent Back," Washington Post, February 3, 2000. Karen DeYoung, "Rare Act of Congress Is Planned for Elian. GOP Leaders Back Citizenship Bills," Washington Post, January 16, 2000. Sandra Marquez Garcia, "The Haitian Trap: Stark Choices: Risk death at sea or life of misery at home," Miami Herald, January 16, 2000. Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, "Decision on Elian Hews to Case Law Around the World," Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2000. Mark Fineman, "Cubans' Risky New Voyage Out," Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2000.