Government did right by seizing Cuban boy

Posted: Monday, April 24, 2000

The following editorial appeared in Sunday's Washington Post:

The government did the right thing, cleanly and well, Saturday in seizing Elian Gonzalez and restoring him to his father. The Miami relatives who had kept him since he was rescued at sea last November, and who had resisted giving him up, denounced the Justice Department for resorting to what they described as police-state tactics. But the government raid was swift, deft and solicitous as regards the boy, and it was the relatives who provoked it. They were wrong, they had been warned, they were in defiance of the law and a weary Attorney General Janet Reno said in reporting to the country that they finally ``left us no other option.''

Justice Department and immigration officials have rightly been accused in hindsight of having blundered early on in their handling of a case they clearly underestimated, and Reno was lately accused of indecisiveness for her evident hesitancy to use force in a case involving a child. But she was the one who had the responsibility from which the politicians mainly fled, and she deserves to be judged by the outcome, which was benign.

The relatives complained that the agents who came for the boy used excessive force, that they were heavily armed. Reno said they were armed for fear they might face armed resistance, a fair enough precaution. Eight agents were in and out of the house in three minutes, carrying the boy in a blanket.

The relatives suggested he had been traumatized. The scene of his reunion with his father a few hours later suggested otherwise. ``All of our reports so far are that the child has been very calm,'' Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner Doris Meissner said after the operation. ``The feedback (from) people ... who have been directly with him is that he's a real terrific, tough kid,'' she reported.

The fundamental legal issue in this case has been who speaks for Elian in his dealings with the American immigration system. The obvious answer is his surviving parent, in the absence of evidence of abuse, neglect or some other reason to doubt his fitness. The father says he doesn't want him granted the asylum the Miami relatives seek for him; he wants to take Elian home. Plainly there are cases in which a minor child may have interests independent of his parents', and in which it may be appropriate for a child to speak for himself. The courts once allowed a 12-year-old to assert an asylum claim. But a 12-year-old and a 6-year-old are very different. The courts, were they to override the wishes of the father on the strength of what is known about this case, would be headed down a dangerous path.

A federal appeals court ordered last week that Elian be kept in this country until it has a chance to sort through this and some related procedural issues, having to do with due process. That's fair enough. Lest people say the boy was stolen, the court should be allowed to rule. But the right ruling is that he belongs with his father.

That's what the court should say. It's what the politicians ought to say as well, but for too many of them the issue in this case is not the welfare of the boy but their own. Al Gore continued Saturday to suggest he opposed the use of force. ``As I have said, I believe this issue should have been handled through a family court. ... I commend the people of Miami.'' George W. Bush was ``profoundly saddened ... that the administration ... decided to use force to take a little boy from the place he calls home in the middle of the night.'' Two champions of family values flee responsibility in pursuit of votes.

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