Used, Abused, and Alone

I could hear my voice rising, my tone turning more aggressive, even hostile. I was talking to one of the Miami attorneys for young Elian Gonzalez. She was asserting that no loving father would want his son to grow up in Cuba, and so the pleas from Elian's father for the return of his son should summarily be dismissed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"I truly believe that any parent would want their child to have a better life than they have," said attorney Linda Osberg-Braun. "And I do not believe that Juan Miguel wants his son to come back to a communist regime. Whatever he is saying [to INS officials] is not his true intention."

But he's the boy's father, I snapped. Why would you find it impossible to believe that a father would want his son to be with him, even if it meant living in Cuba?

At least Elian won't have to go to the circus; the media brings it to him almost every day
At least Elian won't have to go to the circus; the media brings it to him almost every day

"The separation is temporary," she declared. Someday, someday soon we hope, Fidel Castro will be gone, Cuba will be free, and Elian and his father can then be reunited. "What is not resolved," she repeated, "are Juan's true intentions."

I pointed out that INS officials had met privately with the father and were satisfied he was sincere in his desire to have his son returned to him. I also noted that INS representatives who conducted the interview were experienced senior officials trained to look for signs of coercion, a fact Osberg-Braun should appreciate given that she worked at the INS for five years. She served as deputy counsel of the Miami office, the second-highest-ranking attorney overseeing immigration cases in South Florida.

That was one of the reasons I felt such frustration talking with Osberg-Braun. Since entering private practice a year ago, she and Roger Bernstein (another former INS official now representing Elian) have formed one of the most powerful immigration-law practices in the area. I have tremendous respect for her talents and ability. She is no hack attorney, and she took on Elian's case pro bono.

But she still doesn't understand that this isn't about politics and governments. It's about family.

Suppose the INS does return the boy, she ventured. And suppose five years from now the boy and his father arrive in the United States. The father might sue the federal government, claiming the United States hurt his son by returning him to Cuba. The father might claim INS officials should have known he couldn't tell them the truth during his interview because he was speaking under duress. "He could sue the United States for the emotional distress suffered by Elian after the child was returned to Cuba," she speculated.

Is it any surprise so many Americans hate lawyers?

Osberg-Braun pushed on: This nation was now "on notice" that nothing the father said could be trusted and that the United States would be "liable" for anything that might happen to Elian in Cuba.

I asked her to consider a different scenario: She fights as hard as possible to keep Elian in the United States, believing the boy's father secretly desires that. And she succeeds. And five years pass before Cuba is free. And then the boy's father comes to Miami, looks her in the eye, and tells her she was wrong. He did want Elian returned home to Cuba. "And suppose he tells you that you cost him five precious years with his son, years that are lost forever," I proposed tauntingly. "What are you going to say to him then?"

She was rattled by my tone of voice and by my having personalized the issue. "I'm just an advocate," she said plaintively, retreating to a time-honored stance every lawyer invokes at one time or another. By zealously arguing her position, she contended, she was merely playing her role in the legal process that will decide the boy's fate.

"That's a cop-out," I told her. "You don't think you'll bear any moral responsibility if you end up keeping this boy from his father? How can you be so sure you're right? How can you be sure that you're not hurting Elian?"

Osberg-Braun paused for a moment. "It's so hard for me to think a parent would not want the best for his child," she said. It was inconceivable to her that a father in Cuba, faced with the choice of having his boy grow up in the United States or grow up in Cuba, wouldn't choose America. "This is the United States, the best country in the world. It's freedom," she said. Any parent who wouldn't want the best for his child -- well, she'd have "no respect" for him.

And that is the heart of it: If Elian's father is a good man, he will want his son to stay in the United States. But if he is so selfish as to want to raise his son in Cuba, then he's no longer deserving of respect.

Never has a youngster had so many lawyers, so many advisors -- and so few protectors.

People may be divided over the appropriate future for Elian, but everyone must agree that a much better job should have been done to protect him from the media circus. On this score there is plenty of blame to go around, beginning with the family.

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