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Crossfire

How Far Will Elian's Miami Relatives Go to Keep Him in the United States?

Aired April 10, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We're saying it has come time now to reunite these two, father and son, and restore the bond that existed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, showdown over Elian: How soon will he be sent back to Cuba? How far will the Miami relatives and protesters go to keep him in the United States?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE, Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan from Massachusetts, member of the immigration subcommittee, and Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida.

NOVAK: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

just in, Elian Gonzalez is still in Miami. Two psychiatrists and a psychologist appointed by the federal government were supposed to meet today not with the little boy but with the relatives who want to keep Elian in Florida. This was supposed to be the final step before handing Elian over to his father, who will then take him back to Cuba. The experts were kept waiting for hours, but they finally met with great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez. But a Florida judge today raised questions whether uncle Lazaro has standing to file a custody suit, and the American people are a little ambivalent.

According to the CNN/"USA Today" Gallup poll, by a 2-1 margin, they think he should live with his father in Cuba rather than with relatives in the U.S. But also by 2-1, they disapprove of the way the government has handled the case.

Bill Press, regrettably, is never ambivalent. But he's not here tonight. And sitting in for Bill for the next week is syndicated columnist Matthew Miller. Does he love Castro as much as Press does? Is he, too, a bona fide member of the loony left? We'll soon find out.

Welcome, Matt.

MATTHEW MILLER, GUEST CO-HOST: Thanks, Bob.

Congressman, it seems like your side is really dragging this out needlessly at this point. We've got a Florida judge who's basically told the Miami family that they have no case. Elian's surrogate mother, who's only 21, seems to disappear into the hospital for stress and exhaustion -- there are some people who think that's a kind of delaying tactic -- and even you seem to have changed your position.

I want to show you what you said on this program on January 11.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, JANUARY 11, 2000)

REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART (R), FLORIDA: We want the father to be heard. That's why we've said and the court has said, come here and be heard. And we want his family, his new wife and son, to also come so we can be certain that he's not under coercion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MILLER: Now he's here, and they've done what you've wanted, and yet it seems like your side of the debate keeps moving the goal posts. How many children are you willing to damage with this ongoing media circus to get at the one man, Fidel Castro, that you really have a beef with?

DIAZ-BALART: No, no, no, what I've been saying continuously is that only family court can decide the matter of custody. Immigration has done that in every single case of a human child, because as Marty knows there is a law called the Cuban Adjustment Act. Every single Cuban child that has come to this country, when there's been a custody dispute, it has been handled by immigration -- by custody court. Immigration put it in writing on December 1st that the child would remain in the United States until custody was decided by the Florida court.

Then the relatives went to family court. They got an order. By the way, the Florida judge is pending -- the Florida case is pending final dissolution on custody -- a discussion on custody, and the federal court refused to set aside that state court order that the family members obtained, granting the great-uncle custody and saying that the issue has to be decided, as immigration has said, as law, practice and procedure have dictated, by the Florida family court.

What we've been saying is, yes, the father needs to be heard. He needs to be heard, as always in the rule of law, in court. That's why we have courts. That's why he needs to go to family court and be heard like any other father in any other custody case.

MILLER: But he's here. He's been heard. I mean, you're hearing...

DIAZ-BALART: No, no, no. Again...

MILLER: This is becoming a sort of a technicality over what's... DIAZ-BALART: No, no, it's not a technicality. It's...

MILLER: Isn't it time that, now that he's here, on our soil, as you had said before, that...

DIAZ-BALART: The rule...

MILLER: ... his wishes be honored?

DIAZ-BALART: The difference between there's countries where there's the rule of law and countries where there's no rule of law -- even though the Clinton administration seems to forget that -- is that when you want to have your position heard, you go to court. And you have all due process guarantees, as does everyone else who needs to be heard. That's what I've been trying to say. We need the father to be heard where there's clearly no coercion, in a court of law where his rights will be respected as well as everyone else's.

NOVAK: Marty Meehan, you're a real insider on Capitol Hill. You know -- you're very close to the Clinton administration. You know what's going on, the inside story. So maybe you'll enlighten me and our viewers, too, as to what's happening here. Because when they started out, the attorney general, everybody, said they were going to rely on the state court to determine this. And suddenly there was a decision -- an absolutely arbitrary decision by the attorney general -- that this little boy had to go back now, right now, immediately. Why did she -- what happened?

REP. MARTY MEEHAN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Well, that's not...

NOVAK: Why the new change?

MEEHAN: First of all, I think the jurisdiction here is with the federal court and with the INS and not with the family court. However, however, either way, this case really boils down to whether or not a 6-year-old boy whose mother has died should be with his father. And...

NOVAK: Why did they change so quickly? Why does she -- she didn't -- she didn't look upon this as a judicial-type person. She made an arbitrary decision.

MEEHAN: Well, I assume that it was based on the facts in this case and based on the law. But this is a case that boils down to whether or not a 6-year-old boy should be with his father.

Now the only reason any court or any -- the federal government wouldn't give him to the father is if there was some kind of abuse. This is a boy that spent six years with his father. The attorney general of the United States has interviewed the father with the deputy attorney general, Eric Holder. The INS...

NOVAK: You think -- she's...

MEEHAN: The INS...

NOVAK: But -- but -- but just in all...

MEEHAN: The INS has had two different interviews with the father. All the evidence that we have...

NOVAK: In all...

MEEHAN: ... suggests he's a loving father. He loves his son.

NOVAK: In all fairness -- and I can prove this -- the decision was made before the interviews. They said he has to go back. She said that before they ever saw the man.

MEEHAN: Well the court said -- first of all, INS ruled...

DIAZ-BALART: No, no, no.

MEEHAN: beforehand, a federal court has ruled beforehand. Now they're going to bring in psychologists and psychiatrists to enforce the ruling that's already been made.

DIAZ-BALART: No, no, Marty -- Marty, INS in every single case, and in this case -- and I think we cannot reiterate enough what INS put in writing in this case when it placed Elian Gonzalez in the care of his relatives -- the issue of custody must be decided by Florida court. Elian will remain in the United States until the issues surrounding his custody are resolved. And then it says, until such time we have placed Elian in the home of his family court -- of his family in Miami.

In other words, INS in every single case, and in this case, has said the only forum where issues of custody can be resolved is family court. Then they changed. And obviously we know why they changed. Because it was a political intervention by Clinton directly through Janet Reno, despite the fact...

MEEHAN: There's no evidence of it. There's no evidence at all.

DIAZ-BALART: Marty, Marty, Marty, Marty, Marty...

MEEHAN: That's no evidence.

DIAZ-BALART: ... Marty, let's -- look, here are the guidelines for INS promulgated -- this isn't ancient history, this is December 1998. "Guidelines for Children's Asylum Claims." INS has guidelines that say that children as young as...

MEEHAN: This is not a...

DIAZ-BALART: ... 4 years old can ask for political asylum, in addition to the fact that...

MEEHAN: Without the care -- without the parent who's alive and there?

DIAZ-BALART: Yes, and -- listen to this. Listen to the regulation. It says the father can be heard. If the parent-child relationship may be modified by granting a child -- asylum to the child, the father has a right to be heard or the mother, if he's alive, Of course he has the right to be heard, but even the INS...

NOVAK: Why did the attorney general make that decision so quickly?

DIAZ-BALART: Why is all this violated? Why is all this violated?

MEEHAN: Well, I don't think the attorney general did make that decision.

NOVAK: Can I make a...

MEEHAN: Temporarily -- temporarily -- you have a child that is strapped on to some kind of a floating device, washes up on shore, the family, at least the extended family, comes over and the -- and the INS says, OK, you'll take care of him for now. Then the...

NOVAK: Come on, let's...

MEEHAN: ... determination's made, based on the facts.

NOVAK: Let's...

MEEHAN: Within days, the father contacts them and says, I want my son back...

NOVAK: Let's be...

MEEHAN: ... I love my son...

NOVAK: Let's be realistic...

DIAZ-BALART: The father calls...

MEEHAN: ... I'm taking care of my son. I have a right...

NOVAK: This is all...

MEEHAN: ... And then he comes to the United States...

NOVAK: Let me -- Marty, let's be realistic. This is all about making a rapprochement with Castro and discrediting...

MEEHAN: Oh, that's...

NOVAK: ... the Cuban-American community, right?

MEEHAN: That's just the problem with this case. It's been politicized to death.

NOVAK: I'll tell you, you better have...

DIAZ-BALART: It shouldn't be politicized.

MEEHAN: This is all about his relationship...

DIAZ-BALART: Marty, Marty, Marty, Marty, let...

MEEHAN: ... with his father. He deserves to be with his father.

MILLER: Congressman, let's talk about this broader picture. I mean, I know you oppose the '94 deal we did with Castro that said we would return people found in the water and take them back to their shores, but it seems at this point what you really want is for us to flout that treaty, that deal, and that will end up with a scenario where Castro can let thousands and thousands of people heading to our shores...

DIAZ-BALART: No, that's the anti-immigrant card. I'm...

MILLER: ... Many Cubans will end up dying, and you'll bear some responsibility for antagonizing this stuff.

DIAZ-BALART: No, no, don't wave the anti -- that's the anti- immigrant card that you want to wave. Look...

MILLER: It's not anti-immigrant, because...

DIAZ-BALART: It is, because what you're saying...

MILLER: ... because if we step away from that '94 deal...

DIAZ-BALART: That is...

MILLER: ... that's the likeliest result.

DIAZ-BALART: No, no. I'll say this. I'm the first one...

MILLER: And that's a massive refugee crisis for Florida and for America.

DIAZ-BALART: No, I'm the first person that has said if Castro -- next time Castro threatens -- and by the way, he didn't threaten Reagan or Bush with any immigration crisis. Notice that he waited between, you know, Carter and then he threatened Clinton.

MILLER: He likes to do it to Democrats.

DIAZ-BALART: He likes to do it to people he knows are weak.

MILLER: That he can push around.

DIAZ-BALART: That he can push around.

What I say is the following: Next time Castro, Castro threatens that he's going to create an immigration crisis, you have the United States say, "I will blockade." But guess what? Blockade not only the refugees. Blockade like we did with Haiti -- and I supported the action to free Haiti of the military regime -- to free the Cuban people. Let me -- we've talked about the legal aspects. We have talked somewhat about the politics. Let me get to the core of what we're really dealing with here.

Castro has said that he has, his doctors -- and I quote him -- his doctors ready. All the conditions are ready so that the doctors will get to work immediately on the child. That's what the American people have to know. This child is being turned over to a dictator who has admitted...

MEEHAN: This child is not being turned over to a dictator...

DIAZ-BALART: Marty, Marty...

MEEHAN: This child is being turned over to his father.

DIAZ-BALART: ... how could you deny...

MILLER: His father.

MEEHAN: To his father. Not a...

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: What about the question of the doctors? Do you know...

(CROSSTALK)

MILLER: Psychologists and psychiatrists are going to talk to the family.

(CROSSTALK)

DIAZ-BALART: He's not going to be turned over to Boston or Milwaukee.

MILLER: This thing is being (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to death.

MEEHAN: Look, his father -- what right do we have as a country, as a people, do any of us have, to tell his father we don't agree with where he lives, we don't agree with where he wants to bring this young boy?

We have no right as a people, as a country.

NOVAK: Do you know for a fact -- did you know this? -- that the -- that the psychiatric -- psychiatrists in Cuba left the World Psychiatric Organization after they kicked out the Soviet Union? Did you know that? And they have never returned. Did you know that?

MEEHAN: Look it, the INS has sent people to...

NOVAK: I'm asking you a question. Do you know that?

MEEHAN: That's not the basis upon which we determine whether a 6-year-old boy who washed up onto our shores... NOVAK: You're sending him back to a dictatorship.

MEEHAN: No, we're going to give him to his father, where he deserves to be.

DIAZ-BALART: The reason we have guidelines, as I mentioned before, for political asylum, even for children as young as four, is because there are cases, like a totalitarian dictator, who is saying, our doctors are ready to get to work.

MEEHAN: His father wants to live in Cuba.

(CROSSTALK)

DIAZ-BALART: His father is a captive of totalitarian state, Mart. That's why we guidelines.

(CROSSTALK)

MEEHAN: ... live in our country to obey our rules. This child should be with his father.

(CROSSTALK)

DIAZ-BALART: ... turning over a child to a totalitarian dictatorship.

NOVAK: All right, we have to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to listen to something you've never heard before from an attorney general of the United States.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILLER: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE, where the drama of Elian is reaching a climax. The Justice Department vows he'll back with his father within days. The Miami family says liberty should trump a father's love. Is this tug-of-war near an end, or is the broader fight over American policy toward Cuba just beginning?

That's our debate tonight with Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican and longtime Castro foe, and Congressman Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, a Democrat who says it's time father and son were reunited -- Bob.

NOVAK: Marty Meehan, on the -- on ABC yesterday on "This Week With Sam and Cokie," Cokie Roberts asked the attorney general of the United States, Janet Reno, the concept -- the -- what she thought of this little boy being sent back to Cuba not to live in his village, to live in a government guest house as an icon -- that's the word Cokie used -- an icon of the communist regime.

I have never heard anything in my life like the response of the attorney general. Let's listen to it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: In this situation, he has been the subject of demonstrations. He has been very much an icon here. I think the parent and the family should not be punished because of people's differing political beliefs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Do you agree with our attorney general that the way this dictatorship would treat him is the same as his loving relatives treated him in Miami and that the only difference between us and Castro are political differences? Do you agree with that?

MEEHAN: No, I think what the attorney general is trying to say is this child has been the victim of a political circus in the United States and that that is unfortunate, and the environment that the decisions on the facts and the law in this case, the rule of law, are being made, are being turned into a political circus.

A federal judge has ruled in this case. In the United States of America, that is the rule of law. Now, that case is now going to go to the 11th Circuit for an appeal. Once that appeal comes down, there will be no disputes about what the rule of law is.

NOVAK: I'm not a lawyer, thank god, and I, like Lincoln, I'd like to get away from the law for a minute. And I was just going to -- I would like to...

MEEHAN: You should, because it will help your argument.

NOVAK: No, no, no. I just want to know if you think the only -- just take the simple question. Address it please, Marty.

MEEHAN: No, I don't think that. I disagree. I think what the attorney general meant to say...

NOVAK: I know. What she said you disagree with then, that there's just political differences between this country and Castro.

MEEHAN: There are political differences clearly. And I...

NOVAK: That's all it is? It's not...

MEEHAN: There are a lot of political differences. And I have been...

NOVAK: Not moral differences.

MEEHAN: And I have been an opponent of Castro. But that's not the issue here. The issue here is whether or not a 6-year-old boy should be reunited with a father who loves him.

NOVAK: I want -- I want to ask you -- I want to ask you one more thing. I want you to take a look at what the majority leader of the United States Senate said, because he said it better than I could have.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MAJORITY LEADER: Sending this little boy back with his father means sending him back to Cuba, a communist state where he will be a ward of the state. There's no moral equivalence between the United States and Cuba. This little boy is going to have a very different and a much more unhappy life if he goes back to Cuba, no matter what the conditions beyond that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Do you disagree with that?

MEEHAN: Yes, I do. It wouldn't matter whether it was China or Venezuela or Haiti or whatever the country involved here.

DIAZ-BALART: Marty, Marty, Marty, how could you say that?

MEEHAN: You have -- you have a father who raised this child, and frankly, I think the mother and father did a pretty good job, because he seems like a pretty well-adjusted kid.

His father has a right, has a right to his son.

DIAZ-BALART: Do you think that in Cuba the same system exists in Venezuela? You just said that? Do you want to reiterate that?

MEEHAN: No, I said it doesn't matter what...

DIAZ-BALART: Wait a minute. Wait a minute.

MEEHAN: We can't tell a father where to live. We can't. And we shouldn't.

DIAZ-BALART: Is it relevant -- is it relevant or not relevant when a totalitarian dictator has said on the record -- and I saw him on video; this quote I saw him say it on video.

MEEHAN: We can't make the father stay in the United States.

DIAZ-BALART: Marty, Marty -- Marty, is it relevant when the totalitarian dictator says our psychiatrists are ready to get to work on the boy? How can the attorney general in any way compare the fact that there's a free press here and people can go and cover a story to a totalitarian dictator?

MEEHAN: How can -- how can we tell the boy's father, no, you can't have him back?

DIAZ-BALART: The courts.

MEEHAN: We can't. That's right. The courts have made the decision.

(CROSSTALK)

DIAZ-BALART: There's an appeal, and in family court, there's an order granting the family temporary custody.

(CROSSTALK)

MILLER: ... courts, Congressman. Isn't this about -- and let's get real. This is about more than about Elian, but it's about the traditional Cuban exile committee -- community losing some of its power. There was a poll done in 1997 that I want to show you that shows the difference between Cuban exiles who came here in the '60s. Only a third of them wanted to have some kind of dialogue with Castro. But nearly three-quarters of those who came in the last decade are more open to having a dialogue with Castro and getting past...

DIAZ-BALART: How...

MILLER: ... getting past this Cold War standoff...

DIAZ-BALART: How interesting...

MILLER: ... that's been doing this.

DIAZ-BALART: How interesting that my strongest supporters...

MILLER: Let me -- let -- let -- let me finish my question.

DIAZ-BALART: ... are people who have recently arrived.

MILLER: Yes, but isn't it true then that this is a more trumped up affair that's being done to bolster an argument?

DIAZ-BALART: No, the reason...

MILLER: It's being seized by the exile community to hold on to something that's actually fading, if you...

DIAZ-BALART: No, the reason that there's such pain...

MILLER: ... look at the way the demographics go.

DIAZ-BALART: The reason there's such pain in the Cuban-American community -- and not only throughout the Cuban-American community, because you should see the faxes and the calls I get every day from throughout the United States -- is because a little boy is being turned over by an attorney general that doesn't know the moral difference between a totalitarian dictatorship and a place in our country where there's press coverage. The little boy is being turned over to a totalitarian dictator who has said and reiterated he has psychiatrists ready to get...

MILLER: You keep saying that. Look, on your...

DIAZ-BALART: That is monstrous. That's monstrous.

MILLER: On your logic, why shouldn't we be mounting a mescue -- a rescue operation of every little boy in Cuba...

DIAZ-BALART: Because... MILLER: ... and China for that matter...

DIAZ-BALART: Let me tell you why.

MILLER: ... and the Middle East.

DIAZ-BALART: Let me tell you the difference.

MILLER: Where do you draw the line?

DIAZ-BALART: Let me tell you. Because this boy's mom...

MILLER: Because this person called Diane Sawyer.

DIAZ-BALART: Let me draw the line.

MILLER: Because you can jig this one up into a big media event.

DIAZ-BALART: Because -- no, and that's quite immoral -- that's totally unfair what you said. Let me tell you the difference. This boy's mother died so that this boy could reach America's shores. Doesn't her voice deserve to be heard at all? In other words, you ignore what Castro says about the fact that he's got psychiatrists ready, and you also ignore the wish of that mom...

MEEHAN: When a child loses...

DIAZ-BALART: who gave her life....

MEEHAN: When a child loses a parent...

DIAZ-BALART: So that he could live in freedom.

MEEHAN: When a child has the tragedy of losing a parent and there is another parent, that other parent has a right to that child.

NOVAK: Marty, Marty, we're...

DIAZ-BALART: That child has a right to seek...

NOVAK: We're almost...

DIAZ-BALART: ... political asylum...

NOVAK: We're almost...

DIAZ-BALART: ... if he's seeking oppression. And what clearer oppression than the fact...

NOVAK: All right, we're almost...

DIAZ-BALART: ... the psychiatrist is ready.

NOVAK: Thank you, we're almost out of time.

Marty, we're almost out of time. I've got a question that I -- you know, a yes or know...

MEEHAN: I wanted to ask you one, Bob.

NOVAK: I know. I ask you, you answer it. I want a quick yes or no answer. If we were sending the boy back to Nazi Germany to his father, would you send him back?

MEEHAN: That's not the issue. The issue is...

NOVAK: OK, thank you.

MEEHAN: ... to send him to his father.

DIAZ-BALART: Again, it's Castro's all right.

MEEHAN: We can't.

NOVAK: You'd send him back to his father in Nazi Germany?

MEEHAN: No, I would send him back to his father and let the father make that determination. He's...

DIAZ-BALART: Oh, in Nazi Germany also?

MEEHAN: He's the father.

NOVAK: You're consistent.

MEEHAN: And it's not anywhere near the same circumstance.

NOVAK: And we're out of time...

DIAZ-BALART: Oh, really.

NOVAK: ... Marty Meehan, thank you very much.

MEEHAN: Thank you.

NOVAK: Lincoln Diaz-Balart, thank you.

DIAZ-BALART: Thank you.

MEEHAN: Thanks, Bob.

NOVAK: And Matt and I will be back for closing comments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Matt, this is a very happy day for me. My fifth grandchild was born today, Eliza Williams Caldwell (ph). And I'll tell you this, she has two wonderful parents. But if they were unfortunate enough to live in communist Cuba, I would do everything I could to separate her from her parents and bring her to freedom in the United States. I think you would, too.

MILLER: This is what I don't understand about you guys. You guys are usually accusing the left of being paternalistic, but now you guys -- the right is taking the cake, because you want the daddy out of the picture altogether and you want to substitute your judgment for a father that's here.

NOVAK: What the problem is, is if you agree with Janet Reno that these are just political differences, if it isn't a question of good and evil, then you really -- I agree with you, then the kid should go back. But I believe this is an evil regime. I pity the poor boy going back to the Union of Communist Pioneers.

MILLER: But the problem is the conservative compassion for the one child when there's millions of kids that need help. That's the problem with the Republicans on vouchers, too. You want to save a handful...

NOVAK: I want to...

MILLER: while millions get no help.

From the left, I'm Matt Miller. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: I want to save one.

Sitting in...

MILLER: Filling in for Bill Press.

NOVAK: Yes, that's right.

From the right, I'm Robert Novak.

Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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