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Greg Craig Discusses the Elian Gonzalez Custody Battle

Aired April 22, 2000 - 12:20 p.m. ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We're following this story very closely. Just a little over seven hours ago, agents went into the home of the Miami relatives of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, removed the boy from the home, in a matter of just a few minutes put him in a van, took him to a place where there was an airplane, had flown him to Washington to an area just outside of Washington, D.C., Andrews Air Force Base, where he has been reunited, just a matter of a few hours ago, with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

In the meantime, tempers have flared. Some tempers have flared in the Miami area called Little Havana, where there is a large Cuban- American contingent, Cuban-American community.

Right now, joining us on the telephone, the attorney for the father of Elian Gonzalez, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Greg Craig.

Mr. Craig, what can you tell us about the reunion of father and son?

GREG CRAIG, ATTORNEY FOR JUAN MIGUEL GONZALEZ: Well, I didn't see the actual moment, Judy. It was in a private moment in an airplane in a terminal. But I saw Juan Miguel and Elian within minutes afterwards, as they got out of the car and came to the location where they are going to be staying for the next couple of days on the air force base.

And it was clear that there was huge relief on Juan Miguel's face and a wonderful smile and close contact, physical contact, comfortable, physical contact, between Elian and his father.

WOODRUFF: Well, the pictures that we have seen, Mr. Craig, of the boy being removed from the home, show a very frightened child, a child who was crying at least during part of this operation. Any sense of how traumatized the boy was by all of this?

CRAIG: Well, I am not a medical expert, and I can't give you an expert opinion, but I have to tell you that I saw absolutely no evidence of that kind of trauma or that kind of fear or that kind of uncertainty or, you know, being scared of where he was or who he was with.

He was totally at ease. He was laughing with his little brother, Hianny. He was hugging his father. I saw no evidence that this person had gone through a traumatic experience. Now, I don't doubt that for those of us watching this, it looked shocking and scary. I have a feeling that it happened very, very quickly, in the reality of the moment.

But I would hope, and I think that the early evidence is that Elian in good shape. He's a strong boy, and that connection between his father and him is so powerful and so strong. The magnitude of what has been done to him over the last five months comes through even more powerfully, though -- when you see the two of them together, you realize that by keeping them apart, something terrible was done.

WOODRUFF: Is there any question in your mind that the father and son are -- both of them are going to remain in the United States as long as this appeals process works its way through the courts?

CRAIG: No question at all. Juan Miguel is honorable man. He's given his word. He will stay in the United States so long as the appeals process is underway. And that's the end of the story.

I believe him when he says that he will do it. The attorney general has asked him for that commitment. He has given that commitment. He actually volunteered that commitment, Judy, before he even came to the United States. He understands why it is requested, and he has given it.

WOODRUFF: The relatives in Miami, as I'm sure you know, are saying that they've requested permission to come to the Washington area to be rejoined with the boy so they can see him right now as well. Is that permission going to be granted?

CRAIG: Well, there has been no request directed to us that I'm aware of. The only thing I have seen is a television interview in which one of the lawyers said they were coming to demand access to this boy.

With respect, and with understanding that they've gone a rough period of time, I don't think that's the right way to go about this. And I would also suggest that they might give a couple of days time for this father to be able to spend time with his son before making that request, and then it may be possible.

But I think in the next couple of days, Juan Miguel and Elian Gonzalez are going to spend a lot of time together.

GENE RANDALL, CNN ANCHOR: Mr. Craig, it's Gene Randall in Washington. I have question for you, but first I'm going to defer to my legal colleague, Roger Cossack -- Roger.

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Greg, as you know, appeals in this matter could take several months, if not perhaps even a year or more. Are you saying that Juan Miguel is prepared to stay in this country through all of the appeals, no matter how long they may take? Because you know, Greg, this could eventually end up in the lap of the Supreme Court, and then there's no telling when they would decide it.

CRAIG: Well, as you a know, Roger, this 11th Circuit has expedited this appeal to a schedule that is so fast that you have got two pleading dates and an oral argument put together within 30 days, which I think is unprecedented for almost any court of appeals.

The oral argument is scheduled to occur on May 11. I would anticipate that the court will move expeditiously. We may have a decision from the 11th Circuit by the end of May.

This man has given his word that he will be here during the appeals process. I take him at his word. He intends to meet his commitment, and I see no reason for a concern.

RANDALL: And what can you tell us about what Juan Miguel Gonzalez has planned for the first days back with his son here at Andrews Air Force base?

CRAIG: He is with his family. And that's about it. I must say there was very touching moment in the room when the INS agents -- these 6'-2" guys came in, 250 pounds came in. And they had gotten to know Elian and Juan Miguel in the course of the morning. And they were saying goodbye, and they whether saying how proud they had been to be able to reunite this family. And that's something. I mean, these are non-emotional, non-sentimental people, and suddenly they had seen the connection and the emotion and attachment and love between these two people, and they had reacted to it. And it was a very, very warm scene.

RANDALL: Did the Play-Doh help on the ride on the plane to Washington?


CRAIG: I wasn't on that ride. I heard all about the Play-Doh. I will buy stock in Play-Doh.


WOODRUFF: Greg Craig, it is Judy Woodruff again.

Representatives from the Cuban Interests Section or the Cuban government, are they close at hand where Mr. Gonzales is now with his son?

CRAIG: Juan Miguel went out to the Andrews Air Force Base with his family without either lawyers or Cuban Interests Section folks at all.

Then I went out with sort of our legal team to give them a big hug and congratulate him. And there was a couple of representatives of the Cuban Interests Section that I hope will assist in providing him with food and clothing and support out there. Otherwise, there's going to be a whole lot of Williams & Connolly lawyers participating in the care and nurturing of this young family.

But, yes, they are around. I don't see any evidence that they are trying to influence events or controlling events. Juan Miguel is totally in the hands and the custody, and happily so, of United States Marshals. And is free, with his family and intact, to make any decision that he wants to make. And as his lawyer, I would represent him in any decision that he made.

I think he should have the right to chose where he wants to live. And if he wants to live in the United States with his family, I would work very hard to make that possible for him. If he wants to leave the country and return to his home in Cardenas, I think he has that right as well.

And I also believe that he should be in a condition and a situation where he is free to make those decisions, and that they're unfettered and uncoerced and unpressured decisions. And I am trying everything I can to make that happen. I think it has happened, and that he is a free agent.

I know a lot of people disagree with that, but my experience with him is that this man is able to make his own decisions and come to his own conclusions. And although my judgment might be different from his, I can't second guess his judgment. He is the person that has to decide for himself and his family.

WOODRUFF: Are you saying that he is actively weighing right now whether or not to move to the United States, to move his permanent residency to the United States?

CRAIG: No, I am not saying that. I see no evidence of that. I think he is comfortable with his decision to return to the town that he grew up in, to return to his home. And I don't see -- I know that's he has spent a lot of time with people in Washington, D.C., who have asked him if he had the freedom to choose, what would he choose, in circumstances where he certainly did have the freedom to choose, with his family there and present and able to make decisions.

This has not just been the attorney general of the United States or commissioner of INS. It has been various congressmen from all parts of the political spectrum, from the very far right who wanted to meet with him and ask him those questions, as well as people from the far left, and from all parts of the political spectrum.

So I have to say that my own personal experience with Juan Miguel is that this is a person who is making his own decisions. And people have tested that in variety of different ways. I mean, the attorney general has now had two sessions with him in her office where there has been no obstacle whatsoever for him to say to her, "You know, Madam Attorney General, I would like to live in the United States. Would you help me make that possible?"

He knows that that option is available to him. And he is not -- he has not chosen to take that option.

RANDALL: Counselor -- I'm sorry, Judy. Go ahead.

WOODRUFF: I was going -- just to clarify, he is not under any duress because any of his other family members or relatives in Cuba?

CRAIG: No, I think not. He talks with his family members on a regular basis. I have asked how are they doing. I've met his mother, I've met his father, I've met his mother-in-law. And he shows no concern at all about their welfare. They're fine. They're keeping track of him. They care about him; they love him. I think he wants to go back there.

It may be hard for us to understand, but he should have the freedom to make his own decision, and our judgments should not be imposed upon him.

RANDALL: Counselor, before we let you go, why are there no plans for father and son to go back to the home of the chief Cuban diplomat out in Bethesda, Maryland? Does it have to do with diplomatic immunity?

CRAIG: Well, I think that there was just basic logistics there, in terms of space and privacy. That neighborhood is very small and private neighborhood that got rather upset when the whole host of television cameras and news people came in. And it was impossible for Juan Miguel and his family to leave the house or to go out and walk in the park without having an army of reporters and television cameras following him around.

So it is our objective here to find a place that has more space, that has more privacy, that has more security than the residence in the Cuban -- the Cuban diplomat's residence.

There has been no problem with that. They have agreed to that. And I think that's a good thing, because that gives Juan Miguel all the more freedom to make decisions and the reality of making decisions on his own.

WOODRUFF: Greg Craig, just one final question: How long before there will be a picture released or cameras permitted to see father and son together?

CRAIG: Well, we asked Juan Miguel if he had taken any pictures, and he had a small, disposable camera that I grabbed as we walked out of the door. And I'm hopeful that we'll be able to get a few pictures out of that within the next hour or two.

RANDALL: Thanks, Counselor. Get twin prints, if you can.

Well, if it is a tranquil scene at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington between father and son, Elian Gonzalez and Juan Miguel Gonzalez. It is a far different situation in Miami, Florida in the streets and Mark Potter is there for us. Mark?

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Gene, it's gotten a little rougher here on Flagler Street at the intersection with West 27th Avenue. There's a crowd down there about a couple of hundred feet away that started acting up a short while ago. The police had moved down there, fired teargas on the crowd to move them away from the actual intersection and then the police started backing off and when they did that, the crowd surged forward and they started throwing some rocks. I want to show you a couple, this is the one that hit our camera, the CNN camera, a short while ago. It's a good sized one and it would have hit Rick Hall's head, our cameraman. But he was saved by the camera and as you can see, the camera's still working. There's another rock I want to show you, the smaller one. That hit a police officer here, Sergeant Bryant (ph), in the knee. He seemed to be OK.

You can see the line of police officers just standing here now. It's a relatively, given the context of this situation, peaceful stand-off. The crowd is chanting at this moment. If they come much closer, though, I think the officers would be prepared to stop them. They are standing ready with their shields and batons and gas masks on and well, now the crowd is coming forward so we might have another situation where the officers try to disperse them again.

They are putting on their gas masks. We're watching this happen right now, officers forming a double line, suiting up, getting ready apparently to make a stand if these protesters come too much closer.

This is a smaller group than was here earlier taking over the intersection. There was a time when fires were set in the intersection itself and on 27th Avenue. There was another intersection earlier today -- now the police, as you can see, are moving in and they're tapping their shields, the crowd starting to disperse. You can see this situation. And there it goes, the teargas, the bad news, of course. There goes another one. The bad news, of course, is that we are down wind and a west wind is blowing so we're going to get off to the side and try to deal with this situation.

Obviously the crowd is being dispersed as the police move forward. It's very clear they are trying to make sure now that after losing control of this intersection, 27th Avenue and West Flagler, that they resume control of it. And they have just made the point as they continue to fire teargas that they are going to remain in control in this area, this intersection in Miami's Little Havana. It's a business area. Most of the businesses are fine. We saw one window that had been broken at a Chevron gas station. A man was arrested in connection with that. And the police are trying to keep anything else from happening.

And now we are starting to feel the effects of that teargas and Gene, I'm going to give it back to you.

RANDALL: Mark Potter on the streets of Miami -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: As all this has been going on, much earlier this morning Attorney General Janet Reno held a news conference here in Washington. A short time after the predawn seizure of Elian Gonzalez, she described the logistics of the operation and she conveyed the Justice Department's position that no other options were available.


JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: This morning I commenced an operation with the paramount concern being the well being of Elian, the safety of the agents and others. After negotiating through the night, I informed the parties that time had run out. At that moment, I gave the go ahead for the operation. After I had set the operation in motion, the intermediaries called back to offer one more counter offer. I indicated that I was willing to continue to engage in dialogue but that time had run out.

I did, until the final moments, try to reach a voluntary solution. Law enforcement personnel were on the scene, were authorized to and did make the final call as to when to enter the Gonzalez home because this was a very carefully timed law enforcement operation. Eight agents were in the house during the operation. They were there for three minutes. During that time, a female agent picked up Elian and spoke to him in Spanish. The agents then took Elian to Watson Island, where they boarded a helicopter bound for Homestead Air Force Base.

There he was examined by a doctor to make sure that there were no injuries. At that point, he was boarded onto a U.S. Marshals plane headed to Washington, D.C., where his father is anxiously awaiting for his son.

Unfortunately, the Miami relatives rejected our efforts, leaving us no other option but the enforcement action. Elian Gonzalez is a child who needs to be cherished, who needs to have quiet time and private time and to be with his father. And that is what this case is still all about, the bond between a father and son. Juan Miguel Gonzalez wants to be with his son and that will happen now.


WOODRUFF: And for more on the moments leading up to the decision to go into the relatives' home, we are joined by CNN Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas. Pierre?

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Judy, around 4:00 a.m., the attorney general felt that the negotiations were going nowhere. She looked around the room and according to Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder it was a very somber moment. She asked them all what to do. Each one said that she should go forward. Holder said that Reno had a look of pain on her face as she made the final decision and she went forward.

Now, in Miami she's been sharply criticized. They're saying that too much force was used, that they traumatized the child. But here in Washington, the White House defended the attorney general.


JOE LOCKHART, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The consistent part of these discussions is how often the goalposts have moved. I think that's something that you all will recognize if you go back and look at your previous stories. But she continued to work patiently until the very last hour to try to resolve this in a way where there was a voluntary.

I think given her ability to make judgements here, having been involved in this for the three months, given her indisputable record here of showing patience and compassion for the people involved here on all sides, it is sound judgment that she made that we needed to move forward in the way we did.


THOMAS: Well, but this situation will be dissected over and over again. There are sure to be Congressional questions raised. This situation is far from over -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Pierre, let me quote to you some of the comments this morning by the relatives of Elian Gonzalez. Marisleysis, his 21-year- old cousin, the daughter, she's the daughter of Lazaro Gonzalez, said when the agents came into the house they yelled, "Give me the boy or we're going to shoot!" and when Marisleysis said she begged them, "Don't let the boy see this gun, don't let him see the gun," the agents instead just burst into the room where he was holding the gun -- and I know there's some dispute about where it was pointed, but what about this notion, the comment, "Give us the boy or we're going to shoot?"

THOMAS: Well, again, I have no background information on that account. Again, it's coming from Marisleysis. We have no reason to doubt her account. The federal officials have not given their account of what happened in there. The only thing that they have said is that the whole encounter took about three minutes or so, that they were in and out with the boy, that the female agent who took Elian Gonzalez tried to be comforting to them but when I talked to Holder a few moments ago he said no doubt that was a difficult image, that they watched it from their perch in the attorney general's office. They were saddened by it but in their words this is at the feet of the family because they felt like the family kept moving the goalpost further and further back. So they're putting this at the feet of the family.

WOODRUFF: But Pierre, as you know, the family is saying that those negotiations were very much alive at the time this raid took place, that they were in the process of communicating back and forth about the terms of the transfer and they, in effect, are saying the government completely misled them.

THOMAS: Well, I think that over the coming days you will see a great conflict of the nature of the negotiations and how they went. To some degree that's to be expected here. The attorney general is saying that over time, really, after midnight the negotiations went downhill and that she made the call at roughly 4:00 A.M. that they were going nowhere.

WOODRUFF: All right, CNN's Pierre Thomas, our justice correspondent, standing outside the Department of Justice building here in Washington -- Gene.

RANDALL: And as we have been reporting, this morning's reunion of father and son, Elian Gonzalez and Juan Miguel Gonzalez, took place at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington and Patty Davis is there for us. Patty? PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Gene, considerably more quiet here at Andrews Air Force Base than it is in Miami. There's about two dozen members of the news media here along with seven protesters, really no police presence needed to keep those protesters in line there, protesting holding placards peacefully and quietly, protesting what they say is the illegal seizure of Elian Gonzalez this morning by the federal government from his relatives' home in Miami.

Now, that six-year-old arrived here at Andrews Air Force Base around 9:20 Eastern Time this morning. He was met by his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who arrived by motorcade about an hour before his son arrived. A reunion which we were not able to see took place. However, some news helicopters did capture that. Elian was whisked away in the same motorcade that his father arrived in, his father then taking him into a building and we are told that Elian and his father and his father's new wife and their new son will stay here at Andrews Air Force Base for a couple days and then they will be taken to an undisclosed location somewhere in the Washington area where they can get to know one another and deal with this federal Court of Appeals process that's going on right now.

The boy and his father reunited here at Andrews Air Force Base after some five long months in which they've been apart. Now, I'm told by officials here at Andrews Air Force Base that the air force is no longer involved in this. The U.S. military is out of it. The only role that they are playing at this point is providing a place for Elian and his family to stay.

This is being completely run now by the Department of Justice. It's a completely Department of Justice operation.

Now, unlike what we've seen over the past several months where you've been able to see Elian's every single move captured on live network television, we are being kept away. As you can see, I'm outside the gates of Andrews Air Force Base. This air force base is very private. This is where Air Force One is located, Air Force Two, the vice president's airplane. You're not allowed in here unless you have identification.

The press and protesters and onlookers are not being allowed in there, a very private time for Elian and his father to get to know one another again -- Gene.

RANDALL: Patty Davis at Andrews Air Force Base, a witness, by the way, to this morning's reunion between father and son told us six- year-old Elian was very happy and very affectionate toward his father, that he played with his six month old stepbrother. We're told that some of the agents who took part in this morning's raid in Miami in the Little Havana section at the home of Lazaro Gonzalez appeared at that meeting and met with Juan Miguel and that he expressed his appreciation to them for what they had done.

Legal analyst Roger Cossack is here to lead us through some of the minutiae of all of this. And Roger, you made an important point earlier, and you said when the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals made its decision, which was interpreted as a victory by the relatives in Miami, in fact, that set off a chain of events that culminated in what happened this morning.

COSSACK: Well, I think that's right. The interpretation was that it was a victory because, in fact, the 11th Circuit did say that there was standing for this Court of Appeals case to go on, for the Court of Appeals to make a decision and the issue has been raised about whether or not a six-year-old does have the right to ask for political asylum in this country which, as you know, the INS has said that the six-year-old is too young, the father must speak for him and therefore he doesn't have that right.

So that issue was a victory. But nowhere did the 11th Circuit say and until we decide this Elian must stay with the family and the INS interpretation which was, by Janet Reno, which was the parole and custody had been ended, which meant that they were ready and right and had the ability to go in and do exactly what they did, which is return the child.

RANDALL: You heard what Gregory Craig said earlier. He has no reason to believe that Juan Miguel Gonzalez will not stay in this country until the legal procedures are over. In fact, must he legally stay here? Is he prevented by law from leaving?

COSSACK: That's a good point. The interpretation I put on this is that Elian Gonzalez is not permitted to leave this country. Now, I suppose that if Juan Miguel said I'm going back to Cuba and leaving my son here, he could do that. But the real issue here is not Juan Miguel Gonzalez. The real issue here is young Elian Gonzalez and I believe that he would not be permitted to leave this country until all of the court appeals and the juris -- all of the decision-making is finished.


WOODRUFF: Joining us from Atlanta, joining this conversation we're having with Roger Cossack, Dale Schwartz, who is an immigration attorney. Mr. Schwartz, tell us, at this moment what are the laws governing both Elian Gonzalez and his father in terms of how long they can stay in the U.S., whether they're prevented from leaving and so forth?

DALE SCHWARTZ, IMMIGRATION ATTORNEY: Well, as you know, Judy, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered everybody involved in this case to be enjoined from attempting to remove Elian from the country until after the May 11th court hearing. Now, on May 11th, the Court of Appeals could decide that Elian does, in fact, have a right to apply, or someone, for example, his Miami relatives have a right to assert a political asylum claim.

Then the case would, assuming the Supreme Court is not getting involved in the case at that point, the case would be sent back to the Immigration Service for an asylum hearing. Now, only a relatively small percentage of political asylum cases are actually approved in this country and Elian would have a formidable burden of proof to show that he has a "well founded fear or persecution" if he returns to Cuba. So it would be an uphill battle even if he has his day in court.

WOODRUFF: Mr. Schwartz, no less an authority than the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, said the other day that for Elian Gonzalez to be considered, I guess I don't know the legal terminology, but to be asked himself whether he wants to seek political asylum in the U.S. would be, would go against all sorts of legal precedents that typically a child this age would have to defer to the wishes of a parent. Is that correct?

SCHWARTZ: Generally it is correct, Judy. But there is some precedent for very young people applying for political asylum in the United States, even in opposition to their parents' wishes. It is not unheard of. The regulations of the Immigration Service and the guidelines that they have put forth contemplate that there could be a situation where a child applies for asylum even against the wishes of a parent.

WOODRUFF: All right, attorney, immigration attorney Dale Schwartz joining us from Atlanta. Here in the Washington studio, Roger Cossack, our legal analyst. We want to thank both of you. But we may ver well be coming right back to you shortly.

RANDALL: Judy, can I sneak a quick question in here to Roger Cossack?

WOODRUFF: By all means.

RANDALL: Roger, would the federal courts have an interest in expediting their rulings in this case and what are the chances of that?

COSSACK: Well, they, that's a good question. They would have an interest in expediting their rulings and as you see, this is a case, at least for the 11th Circuit, that's going to have a hearing and a decision on, or at least a hearing on the 11th and we can expect that there'll be a decision shortly thereafter. One of the problems, and I know my colleague Greta rants upon this, is that the courts oftentimes take too much time. But I think in this situation there will be an expedited hearing.

Now, the question is what is the, what do they decide? And as Dale Schwartz just pointed out, if they decide that this six-year-old does have the right to apply for asylum, then they go, we're back with the INS and the INS has to make a decision as to whether or not he would get it. I frankly think they would have a, he's going to have a, Elian is going to have a very difficult time making out a case of persecution against a six-year-old child in Cuba.

So, I mean it could be more of a can of worms, but I think that you will see it work as speedily as the justice system once it begins to grind slowly and slowly it does work.

RANDALL: It almost sounds like an oxymoron, speed and the justice system -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, Roger Cossack, our legal analyst, once again, thanks to you. Thanks to Dale Schwartz, the attorney in Atlanta. We are going to take a break and as we leave you perhaps we'll show you some live pictures from Miami, where the scene very volatile, fires set in the streets of Little Havana this morning, large numbers of police out in riot gear. Our live coverage of these breaking, this breaking story will continue.



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