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Breaking News

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner: Elian Gonzalez Should be Returned to Cuba

Aired January 5, 2000 - 12:13 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SONIA RUSELER, CNN ANCHOR: We are waiting for a new conference from the INS telling us their decision about returning Elian Gonzalez back to his father in Cuba.

There you see the INS commissioner Doris Meissner. Let's listen.

DORIS MEISSNER, INS COMMISSIONER: The case of Elian Gonzalez has been a difficult one for several reasons. Elian Gonzalez is a six-year-old boy too young to make legal decisions for himself. In this circumstance, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service had to decide who could legally speak for him on immigration issues.

This task was complicated by the fact that several people other than Elian's father, a great uncle as well as three lawyers, claimed to represent him.

As a result, INS met twice with the father in Cuba and separately with the great uncle and the lawyers in Miami. After careful evaluation of the relevant facts, INS has determined that Mr. Juan Gonzalez of Cuba has the sole legal authority to speak on behalf of his son, Elian, regarding Elian's immigration status in the United States.

There is no question that Mr. Gonzalez is Elian's father. Moreover, Mr. Gonzalez has had a close and continuous personal relationship with his son. During INS' interviews with Elian's father, the father provided vivid details about his parental relationship with his son and about the nature of the bond that they share as father and son.

He provided extensive documentation about Elian's schooling and his medical and health histories, as well as photographs depicting the activities in which he and his other family members frequently participated with Elian.

The scope of information and the level of detail that Mr. Gonzalez provided helped inform INS as to the nature and the closeness of the relationship Mr. Gonzalez shared with his son.

INS has not uncovered any information that might call into question Mr. Gonzalez's parental and legal rights with regard to Elian's immigration status. During INS's two meetings with Mr. Gonzalez, his wishes for Elian were discussed at some length. The father made it very clear during both of these meetings that he wants Elian returned to him as soon as possible. Based on these meetings, INS believes that the father is expressing his true wishes. And therefore, we have determined that Elian should be reunited with his father, Mr. Juan Gonzalez.

INS has advised both Mr. Gonzalez and Elian's great uncle in Miami of the decision and is prepared to work with all the parties involved to make the appropriate arrangements for Elian's return to his father by January 14, 2000.

Having reached a decision, INS believes there are several ways this decision can be carried out. The United States has discussed with the government of Cuba their consideration of allowing Mr. Gonzalez -- Elian's father -- to travel to the United States to accompany Elian home.

INS has also offered Elian's great uncle in Miami and any member of his Miami family an opportunity to escort Elian back to Cuba. In addition, third parties have offered to assist in facilitating Elian's return to his father.

INS is ready to work with the family and others to make appropriate arrangements for Elian to be reunited with his father. We believe that this decision can be carried out without INS's taking charge of Elian.

This decision has been based on the facts and the law. Both United States and international law recognize the unique relationship between parent and child, and family reunification has long been a cornerstone of both American immigration law and INS practice.

It is our hope that with the knowledge of today's decision, the Miami relatives will agree to cooperate and work together with either Elian's father or a third party to facilitate Elian's return to his father.

This little boy, who has been through so much, belongs with his father. We urge everyone involved to understand, respect and uphold the bond between parent and child and the laws of the United States.

Thank you very much.

QUESTION: If there is not cooperation on behalf of the family, what is INS prepared to do to get this boy back to Cuba?

MEISSNER: We are asking the father, we are asking the great uncle to cooperate. We are flexible on the arrangements that can be made. We want to work with all the parties involved. We've done this in a very thorough fashion, and we're going to take it one step at a time.

QUESTION: But apparently the family does not want this boy to go. They're taking steps, making efforts to not let him go. What will INS do if they do not cooperate?

MEISSNER: Well, we've only now announced our decision. We talked to the family, the father in Cuba, the great uncle here, just within the last hour. Let's let this -- let's let this process go forward. We stand ready to assist.

QUESTION: Even though you given the referral explaining the process, what would you tell the Cuban-American community in Miami that is so upset by this decision and who believes that the best interests of the child has not been protected?

MEISSNER: We know what a very emotional issue this has been and will continue to be. We have gone through a very careful, thorough process. We are convinced that the father is expressing his true wishes. We have extensive detail on the closeness of the relationship between the father and the child. The core issue here is the bond between a parent and a child. We need to observe that and uphold that. We will work with the father and with the others to carry that forward.

QUESTION: Ms. Meissner, a lot of third parties are going to file cases by 4:00 this afternoon. According to U.S. law in this whole process, Elian technically, really is entitled to stay in the United States. (OFF-MIKE)

MEISSNER: Technically, he has an application for admission. Technically, we are saying that his father has the right to withdraw that application for admission. What we have ruled on here is who has the legal authority to speak for Elian. We believe his father has the legal authority to speak for Elian, and we are reinforced in that view by the knowledge of the very close, continuing relationship between that father and that child.

RUSELER: "This little boy who has been through so much belongs to his father." Those words the INS commissioner announcing their decision they believe that 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez should be returned to his father, Juan Gonzalez, in Cuba. And the father has been told this within the last hour.

Our Havana bureau chief Lucia Newman joins us now.

Lucia, this will be greeted with great joy in Cuba; won't it?

LUCIA NEWMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Sonia.

Well, certainly, the father must be overjoyed. He had been very concerned, very anxious, in fact was growing very depressed and thin as the days drew on without any decision being made. Certainly the Cuban government will consider this a major victory, having embarked on an unprecedented campaign for the -- what they called here the liberation of Elian Gonzalez who has became a national symbol in this country.

Now, the big question, Sonia, as the INS commissioner has just said, is how will this child be returned to Cuba, to his homeland? The child's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, has said that he, up until now at least, he has said that he is not willing to go to Miami to fetch him because he fears that the political climate there would perhaps even be dangerous for him.

He has also said that he considers his relatives in Miami to have been traitors, to have betrayed him and his family. So there is certainly a lot bad blood there between them.

And the other option that the INS mentioned, the third parties. Well, last night we -- CNN learned that last night the head of one of the most influential religious associations of the United States the Reverend Joan Campbell of the National Council of Churches of the United States had with President Fidel Castro, with the child's father, and with the child's grandparents. And she reiterated her offer to personally bring little Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba -- Sonia.

RUSELER: Lucia, with the amount of political demonstrations that the Cuban government has organized about this boy. Are we expecting that they are really going to make the most of it, and bring people out in the streets again, and really try and point out sort of a victory over the United States?

NEWMAN: Well, that's certainly what one might have expected or might expect, but I also have to add that President Fidel Castro went out of his way to say that he would not do, that they would not gloat once Elian Gonzalez was allowed to return to this country, that the child would be reincorporated into his daily life, that he would receive some sort of therapy presumably for the trauma that he's been through, and that they would simply be happy to have him back. We'll have to see however is there are any kind of spontaneous or other demonstrations today or the next few hours in fact.

There was a demonstration of sorts planned for this evening. But it was one to demand his return, whether they will continue until the day he is actually returned to this country, we will have to see -- Sonia.

RUSELER: Lucia Newman, in Havana, thanks.

A very different reaction among the little boy's extended family in Miami. They have also been told within the last hour that they have to return this little boy by January 14.

And Susan Candiotti, do we know if his family in Miami is going to cooperate and hand him back over?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We don't know. We know that we -- we know this. Just before the announcement was made, one of the members of the family said that they hoped that the U.S. Immigration authorities were making, what they called, the right decision. To what degree they will cooperate is unclear at this time. They have been preparing themselves for what they consider to be the bad news. But what is not known is how they intend to carry this out or whether they intend to cooperate.

We do know that there their attorneys will be holding a news conference in about four hours from now, right after they file legal documents to mount a legal challenge to all of this. And at that time, if not before, we hope to speak with the family to find out what they intend to do.

We can tell you that there is already adverse reaction from a segment of the anti-Castro Cuban exile community here in Miami. In fact there is a fairly large contingent of people here waving both Cuban and U.S. flags outside immigration headquarters here in Miami protesting this decision.

And you may ask: Where is Elian at this hour? Well, the little youngster, the 6-year-old, is still, as best we know, at his school, a private school where he began yesterday and is already taking classes in English.

So, as far as we know, the family's intention, they told us earlier this day, was to continue to allow Elian to go to school this day and they would decide later on what to do. But they wanted to try to keep things as normal as possible for him.

RUSELER: Susan Candiotti, from Miami, thanks.

Stay with us CNN, we will keep covering this very story, the decision to send little Elian Gonzalez back to his father in Cuba. That will be the subject of BURDEN OF PROOF coming up just at the bottom of the hours.

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