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Saturday Morning News

Politicization of Elian Gonzalez Often at Cross-Purposes With Law

Aired January 15, 2000 - 9:15 a.m. ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: At issue this morning is the uncertain fate of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old boy at the center of an international custody dispute.

With each passing day that dispute is not resolved, it becomes more politicized, as CNN's Bob Franken tells us.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The home of Elian Gonzalez -- maybe temporary, maybe not -- has become nothing less than a shrine. There is a daily pilgrimage of politicians.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE POLITICIAN: I just wanted to say hello...

FRANKEN: They often come bearing gifts. The puppy was an offering from Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart. A present, or a photo-op?

REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART (R), FLORIDA: We wanted to give him a Christmas gift, and we gave him a puppy, and we didn't call any press. The fact that the press has found out after that, obviously it's a free country.

FRANKEN: The Elian Gonzalez bandwagon stretches far beyond Miami. New Hampshire GOP Senator Bob Smith came calling last weekend.

SEN. BOB SMITH (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: Help him. Do not send him back to Cuba.

FRANKEN: A critical development in this controversy was the congressional subpoena, which complicated the Immigration Department decision to return Elian to Cuba. It was issued by Dan Burton, congressman from Indianapolis, who brushes off the accusation he's trying to exploit the 6-year-old.

REP. DAN BURTON (R), INDIANA: Well, I didn't use the boy as a political pawn.

FRANKEN: But the latest CNN/"USA Today" Gallup poll shows 56 percent of Americans favor sending the boy back to Cuba. So why are so many of the politicians going against the polls?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think they recognize the importance of Florida, the importance of the Cuban-American vote down there.

FRANKEN: Take Dan Burton. In this year's election cycle, Burton's campaign contributions from the Miami area have been three times the amount he's received from home-town Indianapolis, and that was as of September, long before Elian Gonzalez reached the Florida coast.

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: One of the things that I have tried to do is to make sure that we're not part of any effort to make this a political matter.

FRANKEN (on camera): It has become almost entirely a political matter, and now, for many, a 6-year-old boy, Elian Gonzalez, is a very young but very powerful political symbol.

Bob Franken, CNN, Capitol Hill.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: Amid all the political wrangling and posturing, it is easy to forget that Elian Gonzalez is just a little boy. He probably doesn't fully understand the enormous efforts under way on his behalf on both sides of the Florida Straits. And even here in the U.S., federal immigration law and Florida state family law now seem at cross-purposes.

To help unravel these tangled legal threads, we've invited family law expert Deborah Luxenberg as our guest this morning. She is recognized as one of the nation's leading attorneys on domestic legal issues.

Deborah, thanks for joining us this morning.

DEBORAH LUXENBERG, FAMILY LAW ATTORNEY: Well, you're very welcome.

O'BRIEN: Let's put politics off to the side for a moment, if we could, and just take a look at the law. Family law in the U.S., as I understand it, is very, very cognizant of blood ties, isn't it?

LUXENBERG: Absolutely. In fact, the Supreme Court has recently heard a case dealing with grandparent visitation. And although we don't know what the court is going to decide, the justices have made it very clear that the rights of natural parents are preeminent in the United States.

O'BRIEN: All right. And that is something that is -- transcends borders, doesn't it? I mean, when you look globally, isn't that bond between parent and child recognized more or less universally as something that is immutable?

LUXENBERG: Well, it's not just the bond between natural parents that is so important internationally. But there is an international treaty called the Hague Convention, and the United States is a signatory to that treaty. Cuba is not. But the reason for that treaty was to determine where custody issues should be long. And it is the law in a lot of countries in the world and in the United States that the place where the child resided for six months prior to any custody action is where you should bring an action.

And here we have a situation where Cuba, under that signatory convention, would be the proper place.

O'BRIEN: All right. Is there -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE), once again, taking aside politics and emotions, is there any legal pretext you can see which would allow the boy to stay in Miami, legally speaking?

LUXENBERG: I really don't think there is. I think Attorney General Reno properly ruled that the INS has exclusive jurisdiction in this matter. And the state court in Florida really has no authority to keep the child here.

Another way to look at it is that there is a law in every state in the United States called the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act wherein any actions between two different states, the place where a child resided for six months prior to the action would be the place where the custody would be decided. So...

O'BRIEN: Deborah, we're about out of time. Just tell us, is this, as far as you know, unprecedented?

LUXENBERG: It's very unusual because of the politics in the situation and because the politics in the Cuban government, so that I think there's a lot of emotion. But in a normal situation, there are so many times when you have to consider where a child should be returned, and if the natural parent's living, that's where the child usually would go.

O'BRIEN: Deborah Luxenberg, a family law attorney, giving us the introduction to Family Law 101. Thanks very much for being with us on CNN SATURDAY MORNING.

LUXENBERG: Well, you're very welcome.

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