The unfortunate case of 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez clearly demonstrates that U.S. immigration policy is a mess. Even worse, it's unfair to anyone who isn't Cuban. And Congress is responsible for this sorry state of affairs.
Ideologues in Havana and Miami have turned a child into an unsuspecting pawn in a bitter political chess game between Fidel Castro's militant Communist brigades and the equally militant anti-Castro Cuban exiles in south Florida. These mindless ideologues are turning what should be a child custody case into a knockdown, drag-out political fight that no one can win and only young Elian can lose.
I agree with President Clinton and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service on this one. Elian should be reunited with his father and grandparents in Cuba, and the sooner the better. While I sympathize with those who say Elian would have a better life in the U.S., parental rights should take precedence over politics in such cases.
On Thursday, the State Department issued visas to the boy's two grandmothers in Havana. They hope to escort Elian home to his father with the help of the U.S. National Council of Churches. In Miami, a lawyer for the boy's Miami relatives said the family is pleased about the grandmothers' visit but that it won't affect pending federal court proceedings. Elian's great-uncle filed suit in federal court last Wednesday to block the child's return to Cuba.
Last November, Elian was the lone survivor of an attempt to flee Cuba aboard a flimsy boat; his mother and 11 others died in rough seas. He survived by clinging to an inner tube for several hours off the south Florida coast. His Miami in-laws seek permanent custody of the child, saying they merely want to grant his mother's dying wish. President Clinton and the INS say Elian belongs in Cuba with his father.
As nationally syndicated columnist Tony Snow wrote last week, "The Elian Gonzalez controversy vividly illustrates the old maxim that hard cases make bad law." This is especially true in cases involving Cuban refugees.
Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that any Cuban refugee who makes it to shore in the U.S. is entitled to political asylum; however, those who don't make it to shore are returned to Cuba by the Coast Guard. But refugees from Haiti and other Caribbean countries aren't entitled to political asylum and can spend many unpleasant years in federal detention centers.
That's why hundreds of Haitian activists staged a mock funeral and protest march in Miami last week, demanding equal treatment by U.S. immigration authorities. The protesters contrasted the Elian Gonzalez case with the plight of a pregnant woman whose children were returned to Haiti earlier this month while she remained in the U.S.
The reason for this inequity is the Cuban Readjustment Act of 1966, passed by Congress at the height of the Cold War. This misguided law grants any Cuban who reaches American soil the right to stay here. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Haitians, Mexicans and other refugees from the Western Hemisphere are sent back to their home countries. This unfair situation isn't likely to change any time soon because Congress, intimidated by the political clout of the Miami Cubans, lacks the courage to modify a bad law.
All six Republican presidential candidates are pandering to the Cuban-Americans in search of Hispanic votes in this election year. After all, Florida is a key state in presidential elections and the governor of Florida just happens to be Jeb Bush, brother of GOP front-runner George W. Bush.
So 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez suddenly has many new "friends" on Capitol Hill. Friends like Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., who confided that young Elian had told him that he wanted to remain in the U.S. And friends like Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who subpoenaed Elian to testify before his congressional committee next month in order to block his return to Cuba.
Most 6-year-olds have trouble deciding whether they want to play with their puppies or eat ice cream, and Elian is no exception. The idea that he can decide where he wants to live is ludicrous. Meanwhile, a Cuban-American judge in Florida awarded temporary custody of Elian to his great-uncle in Miami.
The judge didn't recuse herself from the case even though one of her main campaign contributors is a spokesman for Elian's in-laws, who are showering the boy with expensive gifts and trips to Disney World.
Conservative columnist Snow exposed the hypocrisy when he wrote that the Florida judge "establishes an intellectual foundation for doing awful things in the future - ripping kids from parents who live in unsavory places or obliterating families for politically popular reasons."
If Attorney General Janet Reno is correct when she says the custody battle must be resolved in federal court, which has jurisdiction over immigration matters, the federal lawsuit should lead to a timely final custody decision following the New York arrival of Elian's grandmothers, who can speak for his father. But only his father can speak for the boy.
Family reunification has always been a key element of U.S. immigration policy except when the family is Cuban, in which case the side that shouts the loudest wins. Poor Elian! He deserves better.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.