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Should Elian Gonzales' Father Be Allowed To Take His Son Home?

Aired January 4, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, HOST: Tonight, immigration officials ask Cuba to allow the father of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to come to the United States. Should he be allowed to take his son home?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE, in Miami, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a member of the International Relations Committee; and in Los Angeles, Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, member of the Judiciary Committee.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

It looks now as though the U.S. government is ready to ship 6- year-old Elian Gonzalez back to his father in communist Cuba. But that won't happen easily, and not without some fierce protests.

Yesterday, U.S. immigration officials took a step toward resolving a six-week-old impasse. They asked the Cuban government to arrange for the boy's father to travel to Miami to pick him up. But to repeat, it won't be easy. This was the first day of school in Miami, and his relatives there say he is happy in his new surroundings.

Anti-Castro Cubans have called for truckers, motorcyclists and other demonstrators to show up at the federal building in Miami Thursday to protest what they call the boy's deportation to Cuba.

The father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, told CNN yesterday he won't -- he would not go to Miami for fear of being pressured, kidnapped or even murdered. But there are signs the Castro regime is changing his position and wants him to go to the U.S. in order to get back the little defector.

Are both sides seeking the best outcome for Elian? Or is this just ideological power politics at work?


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Congressman Ros-Lehtinen, happy New Year. Thanks for joining us.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), FLORIDA: Thank you. PRESS: I've heard you say, and you said on this show the last time we were together, that what you want is what's best for the little boy. My first question to you is if, as Bob indicated -- and signs are that the INS decides this week or very soon -- that what's best for Elian Gonzalez is to rejoin his father in Cuba, will you accept that decision or try to block it?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I accept that decision if it's made in the right judicial venue. And the right courts to determine that is a state custody court. The family courts run by the state of Florida, that's where those decisions are made. Immigration, unfortunately their standards are quite different. Their standards are not what's in the best interests of the child, their standards are if you can prove paternity then that's it. It's a cut-and-dry case. And that's not fair.

We believe the standard should be what's in the best interest of Elian. He says -- of course he's only a child, and that's just one factor -- he wants to stay here. The family here is a very loving, nurturing family. Yes, it's not the father, but there is a precedent. If I could tell you, there was a few years back a mom who had rammed a truck into Guantanamo base. She threw one child over the fence -- that is U.S. property. One child, unfortunately, was not able to make it. That child who was over the fence was sent to the United States. The father, who remained in Cuba -- and the mother, by the way, was put in jail -- petitioned for custody, and the courts here in the United States said in the best interests of the child the child should remain in the United States. So there is a precedent.

PRESS: Yes, Congresswoman, I appreciate your trying to change the venue, but the last time I checked, I mean, immigration is a federal matter. It's a matter involving two countries, whether it's Mexico, whether it's England or whether it's Cuba. What I hear...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Immigration decides status.

PRESS: What I hear you saying, in effect, is you won't accept their decision. You're going to try to change the court then, right?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Immigration decides the immigration status. That is the correct decision for Immigration to make. What is the immigration status of the little boy? Is he a refugee? Is he an alien? Is he a citizen? That's what INS is set to do. It is not there to determine who has the correct custody of the child...

PRESS: All right...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... That's why the family here has petitioned in the proper venue to have custody of the child....

PRESS: Well, I...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... Let the father and the rest of the family come to decide what is in the best interests.

PRESS: Well, I appreciate -- you're going to have to make that argument in court. My reading of the law is that it is, in fact, up to Immigration to decide who speaks for the child. If they decide -- so let me ask you, if they decide against the father, and if the father -- as now there are talks -- he comes to Miami, and he looks around, and he makes his decision, no, I still want to take him back with me to Cuba because that's what's best for him, will you accept the father's decision?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, but you don't understand. I don't accept an immigration court deciding the custody of a child. The parent -- the family here has petitioned for custody. That should be changing...

PRESS: So's his father.

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... its rules and regulations. Immigration sets immigration policy, and they can decide what the status of the child is. They are not there to decide who should be granted custody. It's just the wrong venue.

Plus, it's not enough for the father to come. As I've always said, he could be coerced. We would like -- just like Castro uses athletes and academics. When they come to the U.S., Castro always holds back the family in Cuba. And that's the way of telling that athlete...


ROS-LEHTINEN: ... and that academic you better tow the line. Don't you defect. That's why we would like Elian's father, as well as the stepmother and the new child, to come to the United States.

PRESS: Congresswoman Maxine Waters, I hope you'll humor me if I give you a hypothetical. Let's turn back the clock to the time of the racist, apartheid regime in South Africa, and let's say that a woman with a -- a black woman with a black child tries to escape, tries to get to the United States. She drowns, and the 6-year-old boy is in the United States with relatives. And the father is back in South Africa in the employ of the apartheid regime, and he demands the boy's return. Would you say that the boy should return?

REP. MAXINE WATERS (D), CALIFORNIA: First of all, let's not play the race card. This has nothing to do with race. This has to do with Americans, what we understand best. And that is the family values that you talk about an awful lot. We believe as Americans, first, that the mother and the father have the right to rear their children.

This mother is dead. She died in an attempt to get to these shores. I'm not going to even talk about the politics of Castro and the revolution and the embargo. I want to talk about the natural rights of this father...

NOVAK: All right, so...

WATERS: ... to have his son. You can make any argument you want about immigration, about state courts, but the fact of the matter is you cannot escape the logic of a father who wants his child, who is pleading for us to return the child, the child who is Cuban. This child should be returned to his father...

NOVAK: All right.

WATERS: ... Yes, the mother took him. Yes, she died. He's lost one parent. Don't snatch him from the arms of this father...

NOVAK: All right. Who...

WATERS: ... who wants very much to raise him. And let's not talk about the rights of relatives. Nothing takes press dent over the father and the mother. It's no...

NOVAK: Congresswoman...

WATERS: ... that anybody can make...

NOVAK: Congresswoman...

WATERS: ... no matter what your politics are...

NOVAK: Congresswoman...

WATERS: ... right, left, middle or indifferent.

WATERS: This child deserves to be returned to his father.

NOVAK: Congresswoman, I can see you won't answer my question about South Africa, so let me -- let me phrase...

WATERS: Oh, that's...

NOVAK: Just a minute. Wait a minute, wait a minute.

WATERS: That's not a good question.

NOVAK: Let me ask -- let me -- Let me ask -- I'll try to give you a different question.

WATERS: Don't play the race thing...

NOVAK: Can you -- just a minute.

WATERS: ... This has nothing to do with race.

NOVAK: All right, you've got to listen to the...

WATERS: You can't pull my strings that way.

NOVAK: Maxine, Maxine, you've got to listen to the question before you refuse to answer it.

WATERS: Sure, sure, sure.

NOVAK: Can you -- can you imagine this happening if this was the case of the -- of Bill Clinton's INS sending a little boy back to Milosevic's Serbia? Can you imagine that? Can you imagine them -- this would be the case if it was the INS sending a little boy back to Saddam Hussein's Iraq because the INS insisted on it? Can you imagine that, Congresswoman?

WATERS: Let me tell you -- and I want you to think about this in terms of the natural rights of any mother and father -- take race out of this.

NOVAK: Well answer my question. Answer my question.

WATERS: Take race out of it.

NOVAK: There's no race. I'm talking -- I'm talking about Serbia and Iraq.

WATERS: A child should be...

NOVAK: Answer my question.

WATERS: A child should be with their parents whenever they have the opportunity to be raised by them. I don't care...

NOVAK: It doesn't matter -i it doesn't...

WATERS: ... whether they come from Iraq, whether they come from South Africa or whether they come from Cuba...

NOVAK: All right...

WATERS: These are natural rights of parents...

NOVAK: All right, let me...

WATERS: ... to be able to raise their children. This boy is the product of the seed of a man who wants him back.

NOVAK: Well, let me ask you this -- let me ask you this question.


NOVAK: Do you have any doubt that this little boy, from the standpoint of life expectancy, of freedom, of the fulfillment of his promise, would have a better life in the United States than in Cuba?

WATERS: That has nothing do with it. That has...

NOVAK: You don't care what kind of life he has?

WATERS: ... absolutely nothing --- listen. In the United States, we have children who live in poverty, whether it's in South- Central Los Angeles or Mississippi or the Bronx in New York. And they don't have...

NOVAK: But this boy -- but this boy isn't living in poverty.

WATERS: ... the same life expectancy. Well, let me answer the question. They don't have the same life expectancy as rich privileged kids with all the health care they need. And so we know that this does happen, whether we're talking about in Cuba or the United States. That's not the question. The question is should this child be with his father? And you cannot...

PRESS: Let me...

WATERS: ... I don't care where you're coming from, I don't care how much you hate Castro, you cannot help, particularly as a family values man, to answer that this boy must be returned to his father.

PRESS: Let me...

NOVAK: Yes I can...

PRESS: Let me -- let me pick up...

NOVAK: ... I can answer no to that.

PRESS: Let me -- let me pick up on that with you, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen.


PRESS: Why isn't it best -- and again, I take you sincerely when you say you want what's best for the kid -- why isn't what's best for this boy to be with his father, with his two sets of grandparents, all of whom want him back in Cuba.

ROS-LEHTINEN: It may very well be. That may very well be the decision that the judge will make, an impartial judge in a free judicial system, an impartial system.

Here in the United States, we have an excellent system called guardian ad litum (ph). They don't take sides. They don't care about the politics. They take what is best for that child. And perhaps the decision would be -- in an impartial, free judicial decision -- that he should be sent back.

And that's all the family is asking for. They, however, fear -- and it's a very well-grounded fear -- that this decision is already written, that immigration will make a bureaucratic, administrative decision. They will come for a hearing...

PRESS: Well...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... and from that hearing, they -- that child will be sent back to Cuba. And I think...

PRESS: Congresswoman...

ROS-LEHTINEN: .... that we have custody battles all the time. Remember that these parents were divorced. And it is quite often -- it is very common here in South Florida, very common in California, very common everywhere, that when one of the parents dies perhaps a grandparent files for custody...

PRESS: Well, congresswoman...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... perhaps another relative.

PRESS: Congresswoman...

ROS-LEHTINEN: And it's not a natural...

PRESS: Now...

ROS-LEHTINEN: that it should always go to the parent.

WATERS: We're talking about apples and oranges.

PRESS: Congresswoman...

ROS-LEHTINEN: No, we're talking about a custody battle.

WATERS: This is no divorce.

PRESS: Pardon me. One at a time. Maxine, go ahead, please.

WATERS: OK. This is no divorce case. This is no custody battle...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Yes, it is.

WATERS: ... about the best interests of the child. It has not been determined that somehow the father is negligent, that the father does not, you know...

ROS-LEHTINEN: How do you know, Maxine?

WATERS: ... have soundness of mind.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Because Castro told you that?

WATERS: It is none of that.

ROS-LEHTINEN: How do you know, because...

WATERS: This is political.

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... Castro told you so?

WATERS: This is absolutely the politics of the anti-Castro...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Where was the custody battle? How do you know Cubans...

PRESS: Can we have -- can we please have...

WATERS: ... absolutely will use any ploy necessary...

PRESS: Can we -- OK. WATERS: ... to get their way. They never stop. The embargo is not enough. Their politics is constant...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Who is talking about embargo?

WATERS: ... and continuous.

PRESS: All right.

WATERS: And they have...

ROS-LEHTINEN: How do you know that...

PRESS: OK. All right, Maxine, pardon me, let me just.

WATERS: It is absolutely illogical and nonsensical.

PRESS: Let -- let...

WATERS: They know that child should be returned to his father.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Let me tell you, Maxine, they are -- they are...

PRESS: Let me jump in here, please, please, ladies, please? OK, Ileana, a very quick response and then we're going to go to a break. Please Ileana, make it quick.

ROS-LEHTINEN: It not natural that the child should automatically be given to this parent or that parent. There are good mothers and there are unfit mothers, there are good fathers and unfit fathers. That's why we have custody battles day in and day out across the courts of the United States. Let us work our system. We have a fair system. Let it take its place.

WATERS: This is...

PRESS: All right.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Not by an INS bureaucrat...

PRESS: On that point, on that point, Congresswoman, we're going to have to take a break.

WATERS: OK, all right.

PRESS: When we come back there is a new voice in this debate. It is the National Council of Churches. What do they have to say about it? We'll get into that when we come back.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

The long drama over the fate of Elian Gonzalez, who's mother died trying to bring her son to freedom, may be over this week. No decision yet, even though Immigration officials tipped their hand when they asked Cuba to allow the boy's father to come to the United States, ostensibly to take his son back with him. But is that what's best for the boy?

That's our debate tonight with two members of Congress, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, and Democrat Maxine Waters of California -- Bob.

NOVAK: Congresswoman Waters, I would like to review a statement by Senator Jesse Helms, which I think is interesting. Quote: "Elian Gonzalez is not in the United States by chance. He is here because his mother sacrificed her life trying to free him from the repressive Castro regime, and to give him the opportunities of freedom and democracy," end quote.

The question is: Aren't the opportunities of freedom and democracy, and getting away from the dictatorship, at least as important as being with his father?

WATERS: Would you like me to respond to that?

NOVAK: Yes, ma'am, I asked you a question.

WATERS: I absolutely disagree with Jesse Helms, not only on this issue but on many issues. Absolutely nothing takes priority or precedent over mothers and fathers being able to raise their children. This I would refer to -- as you and some others -- as natural law. This boy is wanted. His father had nothing to do with him being on that raft, on that boat with his mother. Unfortunately...

NOVAK: You criticizing the mother?

WATERS: He lost his mother, and he should not be taken from his father. The father has every right to have this child returned, and he has every right as a father to be able to raise his child no matter where he is, whether it's in Cuba or in America or any other country. That's my response.

NOVAK: Ms. Waters, do you know what the father does for a living?

WATERS: It doesn't matter.

NOVAK: Would you like to know that he's part of the Castro security apparatus?

WATERS: Well, what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?

NOVAK: Well, does it interest you at all that Cuba is a dictatorship, and this is a democracy? Does that have anything to do...

WATERS: Don't politicize the right for this father to have his son. I understand what the struggle is all about. It does not matter. I am not even going to talk about the politics of Castro, and the revolution, and the opposition. Let's not fight this battle with this little boy's well being.

NOVAK: All right. Let me ask you this...


NOVAK: Do you remember the case of Walter Polovchak 19 years ago?

WATERS: Yes, yes.

NOVAK: Walter Polovchak was a 12-year-old Russian boy. Both his parents, all of his grandparents in Russia, they wanted him back. He stayed. And let's take a look at what Walter Polovchak says now. He said, "One day Elian will be as grateful as I am for being allowed to stay in our great country. It is the best decision I have ever made. I have no regrets, and I am certain that Elian will feel the same way."

How can -- how can you deny...

WATERS: Well, it's interesting that he or anybody else unconnected to, unrelated to, can have his interests at heart and know better what's best for him than his father. I know of that case. And it does not matter that the 12-year-old at the time was supported with a lawyer by those who wanted to see him stay.

The fact of the matter is, I know that the relatives here in Miami, or in the United States, are trying to do the same thing, but no, I do not agree with it. I still believe in the right for this natural father to have his son, no matter what the politics of the moment are.

PRESS: Let me, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen -- the National Council of Churches sent a group down to Cuba recently. They met with the boy's father, his parents, and the deceased, now, mother's parents, and this is what the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, Reverend Joan Brian -- Brian Campbell had to say about that meeting.

Please listen.


REV. JOAN BROWN CAMPBELL, NATIONAL COUNCIL OF CHURCHES: It was a very emotional visit, as you might imagine. We met with Elian's father, with both sets of grandparents, a great grandmother and other relatives. It's obviously an extremely strong and loving family group. We became very convinced that this family would be a wonderful place for a child to grow up.


PRESS: Why do you think you know more than she does or better than the grandparents do, Ileana?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, first of all, let me tell you about this group. It's a very liberal group. It's the same group that advocates for the lifting of the embargo. Is it not by accident this group is allowed to go into Cuba rapidly. Castro will welcome them at any time. Do they want to come back tomorrow? Welcome. What beautiful hotels would they like to stay at? Hotels that, by law, the Cuban people are not allowed to go into. They cannot eat at those restaurants. They cannot swim in those pools.

So I'm sure that they had a wonderful time. All tourists have a great time in Cuba. It's a Cuba that is denied to the Cuban people. This is a very political organization. In fact, too bad that you're not showing the other side of the coin, which is a press conference by churches that belong to the same denomination here in Miami that said we do not agree with that position.

PRESS: Ileana, even the mother of the woman who lost her life trying to get to the United States says that boy belongs the father. Why don't you give up your politics...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, do you understand...

PRESS: Wait, let me answer my question. Why don't you give up using him as a political football and let them decide what's best for their little boy?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, if you believe that who is the parent of whom is an important consideration, do you understand and do the viewers understand that the family members here in the United States, who are claiming the little boy with whom they have been very happy and Elian is super pleased with them, do they realize that that is the family of the father in Cuba? So this is not the mother's family.

PRESS: It's not -- but the problem...

ROS-LEHTINEN: So in case that it matters to you, since you were the one who brought up the mother's family in Cuba, why don't you bring up that it's the father's family here in the U.S. who wants him to stay? We want what is in the best interest.

PRESS: I will. I am glad to bring it up. But my question to you is then -- pardon me, you asked me a question, OK? And I will say to you, the great uncle is not the father. Don't you accept that? I don't care how much he loves the kid. The great uncle is not as good as the father. Do you accept that?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Perhaps the father is next to Jesus and next to Moses. Perhaps he can part the Red Seas. Perhaps he can walk on the water. Perhaps he's a wonderful father. That's why we have custody battles all across the United States. That's all the family is asking for, the opportunity, not a bureaucratic decision, but INS and the Clinton administration is not going to give them that opportunity. So I think that we should listen to the little boy. I think that the father and the father's family should come to the United States, see what a loving environment he has here.

NOVAK: All right, we're out of -- ladies -- Ileana... ROS-LEHTINEN: If you want to see love, we want to invite that National Council of Churches lady to come to Miami and see what a loving family Elian has right here.

NOVAK: We're out of time. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, thank you very much -- sorry.

Maxine Waters, thank you.

And Bill press and I will be back with closing comments.


PRESS: Bob, you know as well as I, the Cuban-Americans in Miami are just using this kid to push their policy of keeping those sanctions on Cuba, which doesn't make any sense. But it doesn't work, because all the toys they give him, all the trips to Disneyland, can't replace the love of his father and his grandparents, and that's only in Cuba.

NOVAK: Well, you love Cuba so much, Bill. Just in jest, I'd like to keep Elian and send you to Cuba.

But I just...

PRESS: I'll take him with me.

NOVAK: I wonder if you're as honest as Maxine Waters. She doesn't care how bad the dictatorship is -- Serbia, Iraq, the old South Africa -- she'd send the kid back to the father. Are you as consistent as Maxine, or are you inconsistent, because you love Cuba?

PRESS: You know, Bob, you don't believe this, but there are some kids who are very happy in Serbia with their parents. There are kids who are very happy in Iraq with their parents. I don't think we should be ripping kids away from the parents, I don't care where they're from. I agree with Maxine Waters.

NOVAK: You wouldn't give the kid a break then?

PRESS: I would not send this kid -- lead this kid away from his father.

NOVAK: I'm glad nobody ever did that to you.

PRESS: From the left, I am Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I am Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.


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