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Members of Elian's family in the United States quickly learned of his arrival and asked for the child to be released into their custody once he was well enough to leave the hospital. At that point INS officials had two choices: They could have sent the child to Boys Town under an agreement the agency has with Catholic Charities to care for unaccompanied children who enter the United States illegally, or they could release him into the care of his relatives.
It would be unfair to criticize INS for allowing the child to go home with family members. Allowing Elian to be with relatives after losing his mother was certainly the humane thing to do. Yet had the child been taken to Boys Town, he would have avoided the glare of publicity that now has made his every movement a news event. And he certainly wouldn't have become a prop to be costumed in shirts bearing the name and logo of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Amid the commotion, though, it's been easy to forget one important fact: The family may be taking care of the boy, but INS retains legal custody. Elian is still a ward of the INS.
When he was released to the family, Elian was granted what is known as a "deferred inspection" by INS officials, and given a formal inspection date of December 23. On that day one of two things will happen: Either the boy will be formally paroled into the United States or his application for parole (filed by the INS as a routine matter) will be withdrawn, and the INS will make arrangements to return him to Cuba. It will all depend on who steps forward.
In keeping with policy, the INS will give preference to the father's wishes, but only if agency officials can speak directly to him. It makes no difference that the father has appeared on Nightline and CNN and has been quoted in hundreds of newspapers saying he wants his son returned. Unless INS representatives can meet with the father, his desires are meaningless. The INS would prefer to interview the father here in the United States, where it can be sure he is not being manipulated by Castro. But INS officials currently in Cuba are prepared to meet with him there as well. The only condition: They must be able to speak with him privately. As New Times was going to press, INS officials were meeting with the father in Cuba.
Elian's father reportedly asked for him to be returned. As a result, on December 23 the boy's petition to be paroled into the United States almost certainly will be withdrawn and INS will move to deport him to Cuba.
When that happens, expect all hell to break loose in Miami.
Before the child is repatriated, however, attorneys for the local family will seek and almost certainly receive some sort of restraining order barring the INS from carrying out the deportation order. In a pre-emptive strike, those attorneys are trying to get the courts involved before such an order is even issued by requesting political asylum for the boy.
Most legal experts agree, though, that if the father exerts his parental rights, there is little likelihood the courts will permanently bar Elian's return to Cuba.
This past Sunday, as Elian climbed off the "It's a Small World" ride, it was obvious he was still feeling a bit uncomfortable about the water-theme attraction. Gutierrez walked over, handed the child a quarter, and urged him to throw it into the water to make a wish. The child tossed in the coin, closed his eyes, and whispered to himself for more than a minute.
What did he wish for, his uncle asked?
"I can't tell you," he replied softly, "because if I tell you then it won't come true."
Did he wish for his mother to still be alive? Did he pray that he could see his father again? What does a child like Elian wish for?
Later in the day he walked past the Splash Mountain flume ride and reportedly said, "I don't want to go on that. When that hits, that goes underwater and I don't want to go underwater." Elian was too small to go on that ride anyway.
Too bad there isn't a height requirement for the political games he's having to endure.
So much has been written and spoken about Elian Gonzalez that the words hardly have meaning anymore. Using my computer I searched for news accounts containing his name during the previous seven days and found 873 individual reports. A friend of mine in Minnesota called to say he was listening to a radio program and all the callers thought Elian should be returned to his father. In fact none of the callers could understand why there was any controversy. The boy's mother is dead, so he should be sent home to live with his father, they reasoned. End of discussion.
Of course, Minneapolis isn't known for its Cuban-exile population.
Here in Miami there is simply an emotional blind spot in the reasoning of Cubans. When Armando Gutierrez tells me it's Castro who is exploiting the child, not his fellow Cuban Americans, I suspect he believes it. But that doesn't necessarily make it true.
"This is a very, very, very sad case," Gutierrez offers. "This kid is in a tough situation."
On that point we agree.