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Crossfire

Who Should Decide the Destiny of Elian Gonzalez?

Aired May 11, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY CRAIG, ATTORNEY FOR JUAN MIGUEL GONZALEZ: Juan Miguel Gonzalez is a loving father who has a right to determine the destiny of his family.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, who should decide the destiny of Elian Gonzalez: his father, his Miami relatives, or should it be Elian himself?

ANNOUNCER: From New York, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, in Washington, Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel of New York, and Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida, a member of the International Relations Committee.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The Elian Gonzalez case continues winding through the legal system. Today, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta heard arguments from both his families and the INS over whether or not Elian should have his day in court and who should make that decision for the 6-year-old. Elian's Miami family sought to force the INS to give him an asylum hearing, arguing age is not an issue, the INS claimed the opposite, and Elian's father argued that only he has the right to seek asylum for his son. Through his attorney, Juan Miguel clearly expressed his wishes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRAIG: My plea to this court earlier today on behalf of this wonderful family was to lift the cloud of doubt and uncertainty from their lives, to do it quickly, and to return -- to let them go free to return to paths of their own choosing and destinies of their own designs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATALIN: Well, clearly, as you can see there, boisterous demonstrators rallied outside that Atlanta courtroom chanting "Freedom for Elian." The hearing lasted longer than expected as each of the judges grilled each side. No ruling is expected this week, but the panel promised an expedited decision.

With his fate in the hands of the United States justice system, Americans and Cubans are asking the same question: Who should decide Elian's future -- his Cuban father, American courts, or the boy caught between two countries?

Bill and I are disagreeing in a different venue tonight, New York City.

Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Isn't it strange, no matter where we are, we always disagree?

MATALIN: No, given your views.

PRESS: Congresswoman, good evening. Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), FLORIDA: Thank you.

PRESS: And you know, I wish you had known me, Ileana, when I was a 6-year-old. I was a great little kid. I was very smart. I got straight As in school. In fact, I was the tea...

ROS-LEHTINEN: What went wrong?

PRESS: I was the teacher's pet, but I've got to tell you, as smart as I was, I had no idea what asylum was. Why should we believe that 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez understands what asylum is?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, sometimes, 6-year-olds don't understand what divorce is either, and sometimes 6-year-olds don't understand what death is, and that's why we have a custody hearing. That's why we have family state courts. That's why we have decisions that are very difficult for judges to make each and every day in our judicial system.

And that is what Elian would like to have one day. We hope -- that's what we want for him, for an impartial judge to decide on what is in his best interests. Perhaps it is to live with his father in Cuba. Perhaps it is to be raised in the United States.

Courts have had difficult decisions like this in the past, and in a case very similar to Elian, a family judge decided that it was in Estraita's (ph) best interests to be raised in the United States. So they are gut-wrenching decisions, but we have a system that's made for that.

PRESS: Congresswoman, as one of the judges pointed out today, Elian couldn't even sign his last name to this petition. His attorney pointed out that he doesn't read Spanish let alone read English, and when you have a kid that young, that's why we have parents, isn't it, Congresswoman, to speak for children? ROS-LEHTINEN: And that's why we have INS, and that's why we have INS regulations, which, clearly, have called for decisions to be made that can render them available to all of the U.S. decisions, to give them due process rights, and that's what Elian has been missing throughout this terrible ordeal that has been very traumatic for this little boy. His due process rights have been denied because Janet Reno has arbitrarily decided that this boy should not be allowed for an asylum hearing, even though INS regulations clearly call for that to take place...

PRESS: But...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... and in fact, that is what the U.S. District Court of Appeals decided in a decision just a few weeks ago, that INS was wrong to deny him that petition right.

PRESS: Well, what they really decided was to hold a hearing, which they held today, Congresswoman, and it just seems to me and a lot of others that you're taking these rights of a child to a plateau that's never -- unheard of in this country.

ROS-LEHTINEN: It isn't unheard of, and as I...

PRESS: Let me quote -- let me quote...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... said, I had an actual court...

PRESS: Let me just...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... precedent that said that in...

PRESS: Let me...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... the best interests of the child, a child should remain in the U.S. It is not unheard of.

PRESS: Let me just -- let me just make a point that "The Atlanta Constitution" made just the other day on this subject, quote, "A school cannot administer aspirin to children without parental permission, nor can a dentist clean their teeth, nor can a summer camp take them on a field trip, so how could a U.S. court expand children's rights to the extreme that a first grader could exercise veto power over his parent"...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well...

PRESS: ... "on a question as momentous as where"...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I'll tell you what.

PRESS: ... "he lives?" The courts shouldn't be able to do that...

ROS-LEHTINEN: That very same edit...

PRESS: ... in this country. ROS-LEHTINEN: That very same editorial board probably says, "Oh, but we'll make an exception for abortion."

PRESS: No, they...

ROS-LEHTINEN: That same child -- probably they have editorialized in favor of abortion for 14-year-olds. So I think that they have had probably many exceptions, and what we're saying -- that we should have a real court date for Elian.

And we should keep in mind what kind of country he would be returned to. This is a country where people are jailed for believing in God. This is a country that allows no free expression of ideas. This is a country where parents actually have no rights.

You know, we talk about this parent-child separation and reunion. By Cuban constitutional law, parents have no rights. That child would be raised in a communist regime.

PRESS: That's just not true.

ROS-LEHTINEN: I don't say it. The Cuban constitution says it. I mean, this is -- they don't even spin it. They don't even try to whitewash it. This is the Cuban law.

Why do you think that people like my family fled communist Cuba? Why have two million Cubans rejected the system? Why did Elian's mom die to try to bring over -- bringing him over here to freedom?

PRESS: OK.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Because they reject...

PRESS: OK.

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... that system of godless communism. We are fighting for freedom and democracy. Doesn't that count anymore in the United States?

PRESS: Congresswoman...

ROS-LEHTINEN: This is a country founded by political refugees. Many of us still believe in those principles that founded this country, Bill.

MATALIN: And -- and Congressman Rangel, let me pick it up there because one of our founding principles is the right to a hearing. Unlike Bill, I didn't get straight As when I was 6 years old. I was a tomboy, I was a brat, but I knew how to speak for myself, and this is something we don't even -- we don't even know little Elian's feelings because the INS violated its own procedures.

Janet Reno violated those procedures and decided that Elian alone would not even be given a hearing. So how do we know when -- before we get to his age, before we get to whose right it is, why deny him what every other person in this situation has been permitted and the law says is the procedure for aliens? Why not let him speak for himself?

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: The biggest mistake that Janet Reno has made is to have trusted the distant relatives in Miami with the custody of this young fellow.

And I just would want to say that it's mighty strange that all of the people that hate Castro and hate communism and want Miami and the United States to be a place of refuge for so many Cubans that are fleeing communism -- when those boat people were coming over, it wasn't their type of Cubans, and they hurried up and made certain they were sent back to a marine base. You didn't see anybody grabbing those Cubans and holding on to them, saying, "Don't take them back to Cuba."

Having said that, where do we get this idea that a kid can walk into a court and first have standing in telling the judge this is where he or she wants to stay, but if the application...

MATALIN: Congressman...

RANGEL: If the application...

MATALIN: You know, look...

RANGEL: Let me finish, please. If the application was made for asylum and you're finding out that the person really had a disability or was mentally incompetent, and that's what you would normally consider a 6-year-old, then you would ask what is the application being made for, and what are the conditions that you have to find. This kid will have to convince the court, if such -- if a hearing was granted, that because of his informed political beliefs, that he would be tortured or persecuted by Fidel Castro.

MATALIN: No. No. No! Congressman Rangel, I know you know...

RANGEL: He's asking for asylum!

MATALIN: Excuse me. Excuse me. You've finished your point. Let me make mine. That is just blatantly untrue. I know you know the law, and under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cuban refugees -- Cubans who make it here are presumed, are conferred by that law to have refugee status. They do not have to show persecution or...

RANGEL: They changed the law.

MATALIN: ... risk of persecution.

RANGEL: You...

MATALIN: That is your -- but that is the law that's on the books. You asked the question...

RANGEL: They changed it. They changed the law when all of the boat people were here, and then the United States entered into a new agreement with the government of Cuba where they agreed that any illegal aliens coming to the United States would be sent back. In other words, Janet Reno would have been within her rights not even to turn the child over to a family but to send the child immediately back to Cuba.

MATALIN: Let's go to another issue, Congressman, because you -- you keep saying -- you've asked the question where do we get this notion. We get this notion in the law -- another piece of the law that pertains to aliens. It doesn't mention age, and there is precedent for children having their day in court. A 12-year-old sued his family to remain in the United States when his family left Chicago, moved back to the former Soviet Union. The courts ruled for the kid. There's precedent for this.

RANGEL: Suppose it was a 2-year-old. Suppose it was a 1-year- old, a 3-year-old, a 5-year-old. Let's face it. This child cannot even form an opinion as to why he would be persecuted.

And Mary, let's not forget this: This kid comes into court with his father. Who has the right to superimpose their judgment on this father's child?

The whole thing is this: This kid is being held hostage for political reasons by his relatives and -- and the friends of his relatives in Miami, and they have a bigger thing going against Castro than they do have for the wellbeing of this child.

PRESS: All right. Let me go back to Congresswoman Ileana Ros- Lehtinen. And Congresswoman, every time you're on this show, we hear the same tirade we just heard against Cuba and against Castro. I want to ask you very kindly, if I may...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I'm sorry if I...

PRESS: If I may -- if I may ask my question, I'd like...

ROS-LEHTINEN: I'm sorry if our fight for freedom bores you, but...

PRESS: I'd like to -- if I may...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... 11 million people want to be free in Cuba. I'm sorry if...

PRESS: If I may...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... I'm boring you with it.

PRESS: ... ask the question -- the question is, please, without mentioning Cuba, without mentioning Fidel Castro, can you tell me why this -- the great uncle should speak for this kid and not his father?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Because of Elisabet Broton, the mom who brought Elian over -- her last dying wish, her last prayer, according to the other two survivors who are enjoying the benefits of the Cuban Adjustment Act, who are not going to be deported back to Cuba, when the law applied to them -- unfortunately, Elian is the exception to the law. The law is not being evenly applied to him. Those two survivors said that Elian's mother's last prayer was to have him being raised here in the United States in freedom and democracy, and...

PRESS: Well, I'm sorry, Cong...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... if -- Charlie, if I could just...

PRESS: Congresswoman, with all due -- if I may, with all due respect, that doesn't mean anything. The father is alive. The father is here.

ROS-LEHTINEN: And let -- let a judge...

PRESS: The boy...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... decide.

PRESS: Pardon me. Let me finish, please. The boy is with his father. Tell me again why that great uncle should have any -- any claim to custody...

ROS-LEHTINEN: I'll tell you -- I'll tell you very clearly.

PRESS: ... at all.

ROS-LEHTINEN: I'll tell you very clearly. Without Cuba, without this boring fight about communism that you're so jaded about, two parents -- one dies. The other parent says, "I want my child." Other remaining family members say, "I want the child." This gets played out in family state courts each and every day, having nothing to do with Cuba, having nothing to do with Castro and the fight for freedom. This is a family dispute, and maybe a judge will decide that, in Elian's best interests, he should go here or he should go there.

But if I could just respond to what Charlie said about holding someone hostage...

PRESS: Well -- but we have to -- I'll tell you what. We are going to have to take...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... let's talk about the Georgetown fat cat party.

PRESS: We will. We will...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Let's talk about Elian being used.

PRESS: We will -- we will give you a chance to talk about whatever you want to talk about. We do have to take a break, OK, for both of you. I'd just ask you to hold tight.

When we come back, you heard today that little Elian fears if he goes back to Cuba, he might be put in jail. Whoever told him that? We'll talk about that when we come back.

More CROSSFIRE coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Kids are growing up fast today, but is a 6-year-old grown up enough -- does he know enough -- to walk into court and plead for political asylum, or for that matter, does he even know what the words mean? That's the issue now before an appeals court in Atlanta.

But of course, we're not waiting for the judges to rule. We're debating the issue tonight in the crossfire, with Congressman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican from Florida, and Congressman Charles Rangel, Democrat from New York. Both of our guests are in Washington. Mary and I are in New York City.

Mary.

MATALIN: Congressman, I want to pick it up really on -- where Congressman Ros-Lehtinen left off. You suggested earlier -- you said earlier that this -- that Elian is just being held political hostage by the Miami Cuban community, but on Saturday night, it was made clear in our -- in the United States capital that he's a political play toy for Clinton cronies.

You guys were so indignant, you pro-Castro forces, when he was in his backyard -- filmed playing. Saturday night, he's trotted off to this mansion, a soiree for Georgetown megamillionaire fund raisers for Clintonistas, who also happen to be big backers of pro-Castro forces. So who's...

RANGEL: What -- what a question. You know, if what you said had one scintilla of evidence, would not our courageous Republican leaders in the House and Senate rush to have hearings and expose how we're coddling Castro and using this kid as a political football? The truth of the matter is...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Charlie.

RANGEL: ... the Republicans haven't got the guts to have a hearing on this, not Dan Burton, not Henry Hyde, not Hastert. Believe me, they've had hearings on anything you can think of...

MATALIN: What!

RANGEL: ... but they said they were going to have hearings on this, and they refused to because...

MATALIN: What? Congressman...

RANGEL: ... they know they...

MATALIN: ... with respect, what in the heck are you talking about?

RANGEL: We've had a double standard -- we've had a double standard for Miami for years, and now it's over.

MATALIN: What -- please answer this question.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Answer the question, Charlie.

MATALIN: What was this 6-year-old doing at a Georgetown mansion with megamillionaire contributors to the Clinton campaign, to Hillary Clinton's campaign, who also support mil -- millions of dollars to pro-Castro organizations and forces?

RANGEL: All I want to know...

MATALIN: This has nothing to do with hearings.

RANGEL: Was the -- was the kid with his father? The kid -- if the father wants to take his kid anywhere, don't you understand that that's the way you do business?

MATALIN: Well, how about all the -- you were so indignant -- it was so exploitive for this kid to be in his backyard sliding and playing with his relatives in Miami.

RANGEL: In his backyard.

MATALIN: Now you think his father hangs out with Georgetown megamillionaires?

RANGEL: I am saying that it's been my experience that mothers and fathers are a little different from distant relatives that's never seen the kid in their lives, and I'd like to point out something, too.

PRESS: Ileana...

RANGEL: We forget that the kid was on a smuggling vessel, and the smuggler -- we ought to talk about that sometime, too. I think it was irresponsible for the mother to take the kid on that boat...

ROS-LEHTINEN: See -- and...

RANGEL: ... in the first place.

ROS-LEHTINEN: And this is the kind of...

PRESS: Congresswoman -- Congresswoman, let me...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... Cuba that Elian will face where...

PRESS: Congresswoman...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... where Elian's...

PRESS: Let me...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... mother will be called irresponsible. When he is returned...

PRESS: Let me...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... to Cuba and his reeducation begins, the first lesson that Elian will learn is just what Charlie Rangel said... PRESS: Let me...

RANGEL: That's not...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... "Your mother was irresponsible, Elian, for bringing you to freedom."

RANGEL: And they're going to throw him in jail...

PRESS: Let me...

ROS-LEHTINEN: I think that's good evidence.

RANGEL: The first that's going to happen...

PRESS: Congressman...

RANGEL: ... they're going to throw the kid in jail. Why don't you say that?

ROS-LEHTINEN: No. The first thing that Castro said would happen is that he would be reeducated, and I'm not making that up. That's not my...

PRESS: All right. I want to...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... spin. That's Fidel Castro's own words.

PRESS: ... jump -- I'm going to-- whoa! Whoa! I'm going to jump in here just because we're just about running out of time, and I've got a couple of questions for the Congresswoman.

Number one, let's go back to this Georgetown dinner party, OK? I happen to know who was there. The hosts were there, and their kids were there. Juan Miguel and his wife and his kids were there. Greg Craig and his wife and his kids were there.

And you tell me what's wrong with one night at the Wye Plantation to have dinner with friends of friends? I don't care whether they live in Georgetown or on Capitol Hill.

Surely, after you trotted this kid around to Disney World and to parades and in front of the TV cameras every day -- and I point out there were no TV cameras in that house -- you cannot object to having hot dogs in Georgetown...

ROS-LEHTINEN: This is unbelievable.

PRESS: ... which is what they had for dinner.

ROS-LEHTINEN: This was a political rally inside a home. These were fat cats who have contributed...

PRESS: How many?

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... hundreds of thousands of dollars to the... PRESS: Name them.

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... political campaigns...

PRESS: Name them.

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... and I -- I wish I had my...

PRESS: Name them.

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... my "Washington Post" and "Washington Times" article with me. Come on. Now you're -- now you're denying the obvious? You can spin it any way you want, but at least face the facts. These were...

PRESS: Don't you think...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... political fund raisers who have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the...

PRESS: Congresswoman, don't you think...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... campaign, and now you're saying it didn't happen...

PRESS: Don't you think you should...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... because it embarrasses you?

PRESS: ... have the facts before you go on national television and call this a political fund-raising...

ROS-LEHTINEN: This is -- this is unbelievable.

PRESS: ... rally?

ROS-LEHTINEN: This is incredible. These were people who have nothing in common with Juan Miguel and with little Elian. These are -- all they wanted to do was show...

PRESS: You are...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... him as a trophy to their fat cat friends so that then they can ask them to contribute money to the anti...

PRESS: Well, let me -- then let me ask you this question.

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... freedom fighting -- this...

PRESS: Then quickly -- OK. Quickly, please, then why is it -- why is it wrong for these people, who may be for lifting the embargo, to give this little kid -- have him over at dinner, and yet the Cuban American National Foundation paid all the expenses for the Miami cousins to come up here and parade around the United States capital.

ROS-LEHTINEN: OK. So when the grandmothers came, that was not parading around the United States capital? That was using our democratic system to espouse their points of view. When we want to talk about freedom, democracy, justice, the lack of human rights in...

MATALIN: Congresswoman...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... Cuba, we are exploitive...

MATALIN: All right.

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... and we are -- it's unbelievable.

MATALIN: We love you, but -- we love all this freedom fighting. And you know what? We'll be fighting for more freedom because this case isn't over, and I'm sure that our favorite congresspersons discussing this will be back with us.

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, thank you. Congressman Rangel, as always.

Bill and I will be right back with more wrangling on this end in New York City. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: I can't believe you. I mean, you've got to be 16 in this country to get a driver's license, 18 to go into the military or to buy a gun, but at 6 years old, you can walk into court and seek asylum. Mary, we have a principle here. Only a parent speaks for a kid this young.

MATALIN: Why don't you look at the law? Why don't you look at the law as it pertains to this case? As the judges noted today, it is not uncommon for courts to override the interests -- the parental interests if it's in the best interests of the kid, but all I'm saying for the moment...

PRESS: You know...

MATALIN: ... is why don't you want him to have his day in court. Why don't you want him to make his case?

PRESS: Because I support fathers and their children. I support parental rights even...

MATALIN: How about justice?

PRESS: ... for people from Cuba.

MATALIN: Justice. Just give him...

PRESS: Family values.

MATALIN: Give him a day. A day...

PRESS: That's what it's all about.

MATALIN: ... in court.

PRESS: Family values.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night from New York for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: From the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us tomorrow night back in Washington for more CROSSFIRE.

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