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Should the Justice Department Reunite Elian Gonzalez With His Father?

Aired April 19, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, a federal appeals court rules that Elian Gonzalez must stay in the United States, for now. While he's here, should he remain with the Miami relatives, or should he stay with his father outside Washington?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, in Miami, Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida, and in Los Angeles, Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California.

MATALIN: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE. A dramatic development late today in the Miami standoff between the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez and the federal government. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals granted the family's request to block the boy's return to Cuba pending his day in court, May 11th, to present his plea to remain in the United States permanently.

The Atlanta court's orders does not prevent Elian from being transferred to his father. Attorney General Janet Reno made it clear she will press on to unite father and son.


JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: The appeal addresses only the asylum issue, not the care issue. The court's order does not preclude me from placing Elian in his father's care while he is in the United States.


MATALIN: The Miami family was heartened by the court's criticism of the INS's handling of Elian's asylum request. The judges concluded that the child's interest in seeking asylum had merit and chastised the INS for never interviewing him.

The Miami family hopes such criticism will preclude a move to remove Elian from their custody in the interim.


KENDALL COFFEY, ATTORNEY FOR ELIAN'S MIAMI RELATIVES: The appellate court, emphasizing that Elian had never had his day in a court of law, concluded that he should have that day, that the appeals should proceed, and that he should remain in this country undisturbed by any action of the INS.

So new movement, but we're in the same place. Was the court right to recognize the desire of a 6-year-old? What should happen to little Elian while he awaits his day in court, and should Janet Reno step in to reunite the boy and his father? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Congressman Diaz-Balart, welcome back to the show. There was a lot...

REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART (R), FLORIDA: Diaz-Balart, Diaz-Balart, please.

PRESS: Diaz-Balart, I'm very sorry.

DIAZ-BALART: Diaz-Balart, right.

PRESS: Got it. There was a lot of dancing in the street down there in Miami this afternoon when this appeals court decision was announced. But I wonder if it wasn't somewhat premature, congressman.

Let me cite you, if I can, the key sentence in the court's decision. Quote -- this is the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"No one should feel confident in predicting the eventual result in this case. The true legal merits of this case will be finally decided in the future."

So Congressman, there is more delay, but the fundamentals of this case have not changed at all, have they?

DIAZ-BALART: Well, the fundamentals have never changed in the sense that we've always said that the court has -- Elian has his right to his day in court, and that the law is very clear that any Alien -- that's the wording that we passed in Congress, the law -- any alien present in the United States can seek asylum. And INS's regulations have said that any means children as well as adults.

For example, if a child is here from a country where there is the practice of mutilation, genital mutilation, for example, that child, even though a parent or both parents may oppose the child's right to seek political asylum to avoid that practice if he or she is returned -- if she is returned to that country where the practice exists, that's why the law says that a child has the right to seek political asylum.

The court recognized that today, even though I admit that the court said that the final ruling has not been made, recognized that the law is very clear.

PRESS: So the court...

DIAZ-BALART: And so Elian has not -- has not had his day in court. What we've been saying from the beginning is that he must have his day in court.

And by the way, Janet Reno asked the court also for an order requiring the relatives here to turn Elian over. The court expressly said that it would not grant Janet Reno that order. So I hope that despite that Janet Reno doesn't move by force.

PRESS: Well, but Congressman, that's my very point. It didn't say that the family must, but it also didn't take the authority away from Janet Reno.

Wouldn't you have to decide on the key issue of custody or care of the child that that decision is still up to Janet Reno? And she could act tonight. She could act tomorrow if she wanted to, couldn't she?

DIAZ-BALART: Well, no, not if she wants to comply with the order. When the -- why does she ask for a court order?

PRESS: Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait, congressman! The order -- the court did not -- the court did not order her not to do that. The court left that in her hands.

DIAZ-BALART: No, the court did not say. That she asked for an order, she asked for an order requiring the turning over of Elian, the court did not grant the order. So if she didn't need the order, why did she ask the order? Why did she ask for the order?

PRESS: Congressman, did the court deny the order? Isn't it true that the court today -- let's just tell people the facts on national television. The court on that point was silent, correct?

DIAZ-BALART: No, the court said with response -- with -- with regard to Janet Reno's request that the order be granted by the court of giving her the right to move by force, they said we decline to proceed in that manner. That's pretty clear. We decline to proceed in that manner.

PRESS: Congressman...

DIAZ-BALART: In addition, they talked about reiteratedly -- they reiterated the right of Elian to have his day in court. And that's what we've been saying from the beginning.

Now, one thing the court did say is that Elian cannot be removed from the United States.

If Janet Reno were to act by force and place him in the Cuban interests section, which under international law is Cuban soil, would she not be in violation of an order that says he cannot be removed from the United States?

PRESS: Why? Just answer this. Why? The father came here to get this kid. The father is here to be reunited with his son. He's here 13 day. Why should the father and son not be reunited immediately?

DIAZ-BALART: He should. The has family reiterated in public and in private -- and they just told me a few minutes ago -- we would love the father to come here, our arms are open. We want -- they love the father. They have a wonderful relationship.

Why is the father not allowed to be with the bothers of his father? Why can he not come here and spend not only the night, but stay here with his son until this appeal is resolved, or hopefully, as the court said -- by the way, the court recommended mediation. That's what many parties, including Elian's lawyers, have been asking for. Why can't there be mediation?

Now, I want to reiterate the question that I asked you. If Janet Reno asked for the order to be able to move by force and she did not get the order, then why did she ask for the order in the first place?

PRESS: Congressman, we're going to get Congresswoman Waters in here now.

MATALIN: Congresswoman, the court also spoke to the issue of the handling by the INS and was somewhat -- not somewhat -- it was specifically critical of how the case has been handled so far, specifically in its deeming the boy's concerns and desires irrelevant. Let me read you the passage precisely.

The court concluded -- quote -- "It appears that never have INS officials attempted to interview plaintiff about his own wishes. It is not clear that the INS in finding plaintiff's father to be the only proper representative considered all of the relevant factors, particularly the child's separate and independent interests in seeking asylum."

They say, while his wishes, Congresswoman, are not dispositive. They have to be taken into consideration. He wasn't even interviewed.

Do you disagree with the court that this boy, this boy's desire to stay here should be relevant and considered, and that asylum case should go forward?

REP. MAXINE WATERS (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, certainly I disagree with the court in terms of looking at the video and deciding from the video that Elian wanted to stay in the United States. No serious- minded adult could take that seriously.

For the first part, Elian is only a 6-year-old child, and his interests are represented by his father.

No. 2, even if he said 1,000 times he wanted to stay in the United States, most people know that 6-year-olds are influenced with gifts and with talk and with a lot of things. Clearly, this child is on the influence of those people, the relatives in the house.

MATALIN: No. How do we know this?

WATERS: So I don't take that seriously. No, I disagree with the court.

MATALIN: Congresswoman, you're saying clearly, but you don't know clearly. The INS never went into speak with him. The psychologist, psychiatrist -- forget that they're not child psychologists, psychiatrists. They're...


WATERS: I'm glad all of those people didn't go into that house.

MATALIN: No one has interviewed the boy.

WATERS: I'm glad...

MATALIN: How can you say that we clearly know his desires, we clearly know he's under the unhappy, we clearly knows he's under the influence? He looks like a very loved and happy child to me.

WATERS: Well, I'm sure that if you had seen him with his father in Cuba you would say the same thing, that he clearly looked like a very happy and loved child, and he was. And nobody disagrees with that.

What I'm saying to you is this: that because children don't have the ability, intellectual capacity to make these decisions for themselves, their parents are considered the ones to give that kind of guidance.

And so I don't take the court seriously when it alludes to a videotape that they saw that seems to indicate that the child wants to stay in the United States. I'm sure that you or any adult could influence a child in whatever way you wanted to influence them at 6 years old.

I think we should take this order for just what it is. It simply says that he should not leave the United States.

But if you recall, his father said he simply wanted to be with his child and he would not leave the United States. He didn't need an order. He had already said to everybody, if you think back about everything that's been said, he said, I want to see my child, I want to be with my child, I will be happy to stay here until the appeals court hears this case.

MATALIN: Well, all right. Well, that's actually not where we are, and now that we know that the boy is going to be given his day in court and this court is going to consider other relevant factors, including his own desires, which I thought you and Mrs. Clinton were always for children's rights, and that in any other case, you would have considered children's rights, but they also suggest they want consider the Miami family's interest in all of this.

Why doesn't -- let me repeat what we've all been asking -- why doesn't -- if the father is so anxious to be reunited with his son, why doesn't he go to Miami? He's been invited. Their arms are open.

WATERS: Give me a break. For you and others to decide that if he want to see his child, he's got to go into the house of the people who literally have kidnapped his child at this point; that he's got to go on their grounds in that environment, it's unreasonable. I think you push it too far. And listen, let me tell you, despite what this court said about his having to stay here, that's all right by him. He's willing to stay here. They should reunite him with his child. He doesn't mind staying here until the appeals court makes the decision. And this business about deciding that he's got to go to the house is absolutely ridiculous, and I would not advise him to do that, if I was advising him.

PRESS: Congressman, you said something at the end of your last response that I really find unbelievable, that the family loves the father. This is a family in Miami that has refused to give this little boy back to his father since he's been in the United States for the last 13 days. This is a family in Miami that has accused the father of abusing this boy and abusing his dead mother. And how can you say they loved this child and they would be welcome in their home? Isn't that double talk?

DIAZ-BALART: No, no, no. They've said from the very beginning that their arms are open for this father. They welcomed him from the beginning.

PRESS: They accused him of abusing the child.

DIAZ-BALART: What's inconceivable to me is that you continue to take the position that in order for this child to see his father, he's got to go to the Castro Interest Section in Washington, where there are Castro guards...

WATERS: Nobody said that.

DIAZ-BALART: Maxine, I didn't interrupt you. Now if you want me to start interrupting you, I'll start interrupting you.

WATERS: But when you tell an absolute -- when you absolutely misrepresent, somebody's got to stop you. Nobody is insistent -- as a matter of fact, Janet Reno wanted them to go to a neutral place.

DIAZ-BALART: Maxine, see, now I have to speak.


DIAZ-BALART: What is unbelievable is that only in Castro's interest section is where you all think that the father is not to receive the son.

And what the court is saying is this: The reason the law is clear and children are allowed to seek political asylum in the United States. And we've been very clear in saying that, yes, children have rights, and like Mary pointed out, people who supposedly are for the rights are children are for the rights of children unless they come from communist countries. There, they actually have no rights.

But no, for people who really believe in rights of children, like Congress, that establish that they have the right to have political asylum, they are -- we are clear when we say any alien has the right to seek political asylum in the United States. PRESS: Congressman, you have made that point several time. Thank you. We're going to have to take a break -- Congresswoman Waters, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

When we come back, let's ask the question: Is Elian in safe hands with his family in Miami?


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Well, what looked like a slam dunk for the Justice Department turned into a disaster today, when the court refused to endorse its order that little Elian Gonzalez be returned immediately to his father. So now it's up to Janet Reno, who said today she's keeping all of her options open. What's that mean? Let's ask Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Republican from Florida, who joins us from outside the temporary home of Elian Gonzalez in Miami, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Democrat from California, in Los Angeles -- Mary.

MATALIN: Congresswoman, as always, it's easy to lose what is in the best interest of Elian Gonzalez in these so overheated discussions. But I think his lawyer did reference that point. Let's take a second and listen to him.


KENDALL COFFEY, ATTORNEY FOR ELIAN'S MIAMI RELATIVES: We call upon the INS to take no precipitous actions between now and the time this appeal is heard, because we think that it is so clear that the rights of a child have to be heard without further disruption, without further dislocation, without further trauma of any sort.


MATALIN: OK, Maxine, when Janet Reno said today she's keeping all of her options open, one thinks back to when she was suggesting she might go in, if she so decides, by force and take little Elian out.

Two questions: Do you think that's a good idea, because it certainly wouldn't seem to reduce the trauma in the situation for the boy? And do you think she's handled this well so far?

WATERS: Well, I think Janet Reno has bent over backwards and has been very lenient trying to get the family in Florida to do the right thing. Janet Reno wants to reconnect this child with his father. It is resisted in every way possible. The court today simply said that he should stay in the United States. It does not in any way stop her from exercising her rights as the attorney general and going in and getting him according to law. She's going to be very cautious about that. She's been very cautious about this all along. It would be in the best interest of the child if those relatives simply turn him over to his father and stop trying to hold on to him. That young lady is not his mother. His uncle is not his father. His father is over there in Maryland, waiting to see his child, and that's who should have him -- yes.

MATALIN: Congresswoman, even the psychologist says that he has a bond with the family. Let's get off of that for a minute.

WATERS: Doesn't make any difference.

MATALIN: Stay with Attorney General Janet Reno. You say she's been cautious. She's been somewhat imprudent, too, setting deadlines, as in I'll give him up by 2:00 or else. Or else what? Don't you think that contributes to dislocation and trauma for the boy? I'm talking about the interests of the boy.

WATERS: No, I'm talking about the interests of the boy. I think the boy is being traumatized by people who put him on video and have him shaking his finger at his father, saying words that are not coming out of his own brain, words that they have put in his mouth. I think he's traumatized by waving and hearing the chants outside of a house where he's been a spectacle now, made by those relatives who claim they love him.

I think it is not in the best interest of the boy to stay there with people who are not working, who are there everyday.

Where are these people getting their income from? All I see is this uncle coming out on television smoking cigarettes and a hysterical young woman, crying about her bond with Elian. She's is not his mother and shouldn't be his mother. She needs to take care of her own emotional well-being.

PRESS: Congressman, coming back to...

DIAZ-BALART: What about the mother? What about the mother? Why don't we remember the mother? What did the mother die for? To bring him to freedom. Now I know some people haven't heard of the word "freedom."

WATERS: The mother was with an abusive man.

DIAZ-BALART: The mother sought freedom, Maxine. I know you may find freedom -- aversion to the word "freedom," but she died to bring Elian to freedom.

WATERS: Don't you tell me about what freedom means. Don't forget, my foreparents came here as slaves, so I don't need any lecture from you about freedom.

DIAZ-BALART: Well, let me tell you, let me tell you I wish you would support the right of the Cuban people to have free elections. I wish once you would call for free elections for Cuba instead of asking Castro to forgive you for having voted to condemn a killer who has sought refuge in Castro's Cuba, and you ask for forgiveness.


PRESS: I am going to interrupt here. WATERS: You can try and turn this -- you can try and turn this into an argument about Castro all you want. It's about parental rights, sir.

DIAZ-BALART: Just once, Maxine. Just once...

WATERS: It's about a little boy and his father.

PRESS: Both, both, both -- thank you.

WATERS: You're welcome.

PRESS: Congressman, let me ask you this, Congressman. Janet Reno came out today, and she reiterated the point that Lazaro Gonzalez is now holding this boy against the law.

DIAZ-BALART: That's not true.

PRESS: They are holding him illegally. I ask you, as an officer of the law, I ask you as someone who swore to uphold the laws of the United States, how can you encourage people to break the law and stay in office?

DIAZ-BALART: It's about time. It's about time. Not only am I a lawyer, not only am I a congressman, I was assistant state attorney under Janet Reno when she was assistant attorney in Dade County. And I'll say this, this family has never violated the law. Janet Reno sought a court order in order to be able to remove Elian by force.

PRESS: They're breaking it now, congressman. They're breaking it now.

DIAZ-BALART: That's not true. Why do you lie? Why do you lie? They are not...

PRESS: The attorney general says they're breaking the law -- that's not me.

DIAZ-BALART: No, Janet Reno sought a court order, she sought a court order to be able to go in here by force, and she was denied the court order.

WATERS: She was not denied a court order.

DIAZ-BALART: Yes, she was.

MATALIN: Congresswoman and congressman, of course we have not -- once again, we have not decided little Elian's fate, but we thank you for continuing on this dialogue with us, Congressman Balart there in Miami...

DIAZ-BALART: Luckily, we have courts in this country.

WATERS: But you should learn how to interpret what the courts are saying and stop making up things, Congressman. MATALIN: I'll tell you what, when we come back, we'll interpret what the court said, and I guess what was said on this show. Stay with us for our closing comments.


MATALIN: CROSSFIRE is not the only place to see Bill Press and me. Tonight we kick of a special new segment on CNN's "NEWSSTAND": CROSSFIRE Extra. It's a chance for you to get the inside track on how the candidates are tackling the major issues of campaign 2000. Tonight's issue: gun control. That's CROSSFIRE Extra on CNN's "NEWSSTAND," tonight at 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

And I hope we're talking -- look, Maxine said this is not about Castro, it's not about communism -- it is about freedom. My good friend, Alex Castellanos, has been a guest on the show. His own parents fled with him at Elian's age from Cuba, and he asks us to remember what horror would lead Elian's mother to get in a raft with her 5-year-old son. Multiple horrors.

PRESS: Read "George" magazine this week. What moved her to do it was she's in love with some rogue and she said she'd follow him to the end of the Earth. Look, I hope this decision...

MATALIN: So now you're calling it abusive mother.

PRESS: ... gives Janet Reno backbone to send in the Marines, if necessary. Put this boy with his father. Get it over with.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: Advocating military intervention.

PRESS: Or keeping the law.


I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE, and later on, on CROSSFIRE Extra.



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