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Elián’s Legacy
by Lionel E. Deimel

At long last, following the rejection by the Supreme Court of the final appeal by his Miami relatives, Elián Gonzales, his father, and their retinue are back in their homeland. It is not too early to begin drawing lessons from the international affair that began with Elián's rescue at sea last Thanksgiving Day. We have, after all, had a long time to consider the matter.

Most obviously, we need to clarify our immigration rules on several points, so that future situations similar to Elián’s will be less subject to confusion and debate. Currently, Cubans who escape Cuba and somehow reach U.S. shores are eligible for asylum, whereas those intercepted in the water by the Coast Guard are summarily returned to Cuba. Irrespective of whether this arrangement is desirable, its existence raises the question of why someone should not be promptly sent back to Cuba if he reaches the U.S. with the help of U.S. nationals in a fishing boat. Arguably, Elián, the U.S., and Cuba would all have been better off had the five-year-old boy been promptly deported. (Well, maybe not Cuba.)

Next, there is the question of whether Elián's case was a custody case or an immigration case. The Miami relatives, remember, wanted Elián's fate to be decided by a Florida family court. We should clarify for the future, that we don't interfere in the lives of people who do not belong here. Instead, we return them to where they do belong and let their local governments handle relevant legal issues in their lives.

As to the immigration issue itself, the government held—and by a substantial margin, the American people concurred—that six-year-olds ought not be able to apply for asylum if their living parents wish for them to live elsewhere. It may be a reasonable policy to treat older children differently, but hardly anyone outside of the state of Florida is likely to argue that your average kindergarten pupil should be deciding the country he should live in. We need to draw a line here, and perhaps that line cannot be drawn sharply. Even if the line is fuzzy, however, it should disallow asylum petitions from kindergarteners.

Immigration and Naturalization Service should never again place a minor whose immigration status is in doubt in the custody of relatives. In Elián Gonzales’s case, this perhaps seemed like a good idea at the time, but it quickly became obvious to objective observers that the Miami relatives would never surrender their charge voluntarily. This should have been seen by INS officials as a likely outcome before the placement became official, but either it was not or the idea was dismissed. Ideally, a minor in Elián's position should not be placed in the custody of anyone likely to object strongly to the child’s deportation. This would disqualify citizens with strong ties to the child’s country of origin. This may be an impractical standard, but relatives should definitely be excluded as potential guardians in future cases.

Elián's American relatives argued that the boy would have a better life in the U.S. than in Cuba. From a materialistic viewpoint, that is undoubtedly true;  even Fidel Castro might concede the point. This calculus ignores the value of the love and companionship of a father, of course, the loss of which might somehow be compensated for by the greater freedom and opportunity available in the U.S. But such calculations are inherently dangerous. They seem to come from a jingoistic arrogance and could lead to completely impractical and unreasonable conclusions. Should we kidnap children in countries with governments of which we do not approve and bring those children to the U.S. as an act of charity? What is best for the child actually is not the most import question, certainly not with respect to public policy, at any rate.

It may be uncharitable to suggest that, within the Cuban émigré community, the whole affair was not about Elián, but about Fidel Castro. Clearly, though, a view of the Cuban dictator as a kind of incarnation of evil was behind the determined stand, within that community, against returning Elián to Cuba under any circumstances.

This brings us to what likely will be the most lasting legacy of the Elián affair, namely, the rescue of American foreign policy toward Cuba from the Cuban émigré community in Florida and its return to the American people. American policy toward Cuba has, for nearly half a century, been assumed by politicians to be the other third rail of American politics. It was a matter of indifference to most voters, but was a matter of supreme concern to a significant voting block in a populous—hence, electorally important—state. Now, however, significant numbers of Americans have been made aware of the special way we treat Cubans who enter the U.S. without authorization, and they have seen the monomaniacal view of Cuba-as-hell that is responsible for such foreign policy aberrations. They are not at all pleased with the idea that a boy should be rested from his father simply because that father lives under a dictator. This comes at a time when commercial interests have begun to see Cuba as a potential market, and when our China policy necessarily forces to confront the question of why its rationale should not be applied to an even closer communist dictatorship. Moreover, it is obvious to the Democrats that they cannot win Florida even if they do pander to Cuban-Americans, just as it is obvious to the Republicans that they cannot lose Florida if they do not. The thaw in Congress is already apparent. If the Elián Gonzales affair results in a Cuban foreign policy conducted in the interest of the American people, it will all have been worthwhile.

—Lionel Deimel, 7/2/2000


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