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May 2000, Volume 7, Number 5

Cuba: Elian Gonzalez

On April 22, 2000, INS officials took six-year old Elian Gonzalez from his relatives' Miami home and flew him to Washington, DC, where he was reunited with his father after a separation of five months. Elian was rescued at sea on November 25, 1999 and brought to Florida by two fishermen after the boat taking his mother and 10 other Cubans to Florida sank. His saga has been front-page news since. Most experts predicted that the case would now end quickly.

There was much commentary over the way that the INS recovered Elian from his Miami relatives, including a much-publicized photo of an armed INS agent demanding that the fisherman who rescued the boy turn him over to another INS agent. Some 131 INS agents participated in the recovery of Elian; the federal government has spent an estimated $600,000 on the case so far.

In December 1999, the boy's relatives in Miami applied for asylum on his behalf so that he could remain in the US. The INS refused their application, saying that only the boy's father could apply for asylum on Elian's behalf, and a federal judge agreed. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in April 2000 ordered the INS to keep Elian in the US until at least May 11, and implied that Elian should have a chance to state his preferences as to whether he wished to remain in the US or return to Cuba.

The court noted that "any alien who is physically present in the United States" may apply for asylum, calling into question the traditional rule that parents decide what is best for their children. The court ordered the INS to interview Elian, and suggested that if Elian wanted to apply for asylum, the INS would have to consider his application.

There was much debate over whether a six-year old should be able to file an asylum application in the US over his father's objections. The INS took the position that a six-year old could not apply for asylum in such circumstances. Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) introduced S.2383—the Alien Children Protection Act of 2000—that could lead to immigration courts appointing a "guardian ad litem" for unaccompanied children in asylum proceedings.

If US and international law had been applied promptly, the boy would have been returned to his father in Cuba. However, Elian quickly became a symbol for anti-Castro Cubans in Miami, who said the decision of the boy's mother to risk a trip to Florida exemplified the desperation of Cubans attempting to leave Cuba-- some 500,000 of Cuba's 11 million residents entered a lottery for one of 20,000 US immigration visas available each year.. Cuban President Castro, on the other hand, said that the adults' decision to take a small boat to Florida resulted from the US policy of giving immigrant status to all Cubans who manage to reach the US.

There were daily demonstrations in the Little Havana section of Miami, and more protests after the INS removed the boy from his relatives' home. The Miami city government put the cost of police activities associated with demonstrations around the house of Elian's relatives at $1 million by April 2000— eight to 18 officers were on duty around the clock. On April 22-23, hundreds of Cuban-Americans were arrested as they protested the removal of Elian from Miami.

Cuban Americans' resistance to returning Elian attracted little support outside of Miami, and highlighted the differences between attitudes toward Cuban in south Florida and the rest of the US. Cuban-Americans are 800,000 of Dade county's 2.1 million people. A Newsweek magazine poll found that 53 percent of respondents nationwide believe Elian Gonzalez should be returned to his father, while 30 percent said he should stay with his relatives in Miami. Other polls found that over 80 percent of Cuban-Americans in south Florida wanted Elian to stay in the US.

Cuban-American behavior in the Elian case may, some experts say, eventually lead to a relaxation of the US embargo of Cuba that most Miami Cubans favor. US law has since the 1960s banned all US exports to Cuba except pharmaceuticals; travel to Cuba requires a license from the Treasury Department.

Haitians. The number of Haitians intercepted by the US Coast Guard attempting to get to the US was 1,437 in 1998 and 480 in 1999. However, in 2000 more Haitians are fleeing, although some are making it only as far as the Bahamas, a nation of 700 islands and 280,000 people that has 20,000 to 40,000 unauthorized Haitians.

Esther Schrader And Mike Clary, "Public Bill In Elian Case Tops $1.5 Million, Agencies Say," Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2000.