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Appeals Judges Hear Elian Case

May 11, 2000

ATLANTA (AP) _ Three federal appeals judges questioned lawyers in the Elian Gonzalez case today, asking whether the 6-year-old boy is too young to apply for asylum and whether being from communist Cuba compromises his father’s parental rights.

The judges said they would rule quickly, but indicated it would be weeks.

Judge J.L. Edmondson said the rights of a parent can sometimes be overridden by the best interests of a child.

``I worry about whether there is inherently a conflict of interest that ... a child is within the jurisdiction of the United States and the sole parent is ... residing in what I understand our State Department calls a communist, totalitarian state,″ Edmondson said.

Gregory Craig, Elian’s father’s attorney, insisted that Juan Miguel Gonzalez is expressing his desires without coercion from Fidel Castro’s government.

``He has been free to express openly his feelings and his opinions throughout,″ said Craig. He added the father wants to decide what’s best for Elian ``free from any kind of manipulation from Miami or coercion from Havana.″

Kendall Coffey, attorney for the Miami relatives, said the father’s best intentions would not matter if Elian is forced to return to Cuba.

``There is no parent in Cuba who controls what happens to his or her child, and there is no power in this country that can protect this child if he is removed to Cuba.″

Coffey said Elian is in danger of political persecution because his mother and stepfather, who died trying to flee Cuba with the boy, are considered traitors there.

Coffey insisted the INS violated its own guidelines by rejecting Elian’s application without a hearing.

Judge Charles Wilson aggressively questioned him about whether Elian could understand the contents of his asylum request and whether immigration officials would be required to accept it without his father’s approval.

``I’m sure Elian Gonzalez is a very bright and intelligent 6-year-old, but he didn’t even have the ability to sign his last name on the asylum petition,″ Wilson said.

The aggressive questioning by the judges pushed the hearing to one hour and 20 minutes, twice its scheduled length.

Atlanta police closed several streets around the building and security was tight throughout the area, where about 100 protesters _ most of them supporting the Miami relatives _ gathered.

Atlanta police closed several streets around the building and security was tight throughout the area, where about 100 protesters _ most of them supporting the Miami relatives _ gathered.

So far, immigration officials and a federal judge in Miami have rejected the asylum application signed by Elian and filed by his great uncle.

Lawyers for both the U.S. government and Juan Miguel say Elian is not mature enough to make such choices. They say the father is the one to decide for his son.

``There is a high probability this is the last stand″ for the Miami relatives, said Charles Keely, a professor of international migration at Georgetown University.

If the judges rule against the relatives, there is no assurance the full 11th Circuit Court or the Supreme Court will hear their appeals.

The three 11th Circuit judges ordered that Elian remain in the country until they ruled on his appeal. But there is no guarantee he would be barred from leaving before further appeals could be heard.

Elian was found clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Florida on Nov. 25. His mother and 10 others died trying to flee Cuba when their boat capsized, while Elian and two others survived.

The judges could decide the Immigration and Naturalization Service was right in denying Elian’s asylum application, or it could order the INS to give the boy an asylum hearing.

The judges also could rule somewhere in the middle, such as telling the INS to interview Elian and then decide if his application should be heard.

Elian’s father also has asked the court to let him replace Lazaro Gonzalez as the adult representing the boy in the lawsuit. If the judges agree, Juan Miguel Gonzalez could drop the case.

Either side would have 45 days to ask all 12 judges of the 11th Circuit to hear the case. If the court refused, the losing side would have 90 days to appeal to the Supreme Court.

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