US Issues Visas to Elian’s Grandmas
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The custody fight over Elian Gonzalez took a new turn Thursday as the grandmothers of the 6-year-old obtained visas to travel to the United States to make their case that the boy should be returned to his father in Cuba.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba issued visas to the two women Thursday afternoon as a group from the National Council of Churches was flying to Havana from New York to meet with them and with Cuban government officials.
They were expected to fly to New York on Friday, apparently escorted by the church group, and Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who has offered to accompany the boy to Cuba, planned to meet with the women. They hoped to return home with Elian, according to congressional sources.
These sources said New York was chosen as a destination because the welcome there would be far friendlier than in Miami, where Elian has been living with relatives for almost two months and where sentiment for his remaining in the United States is strong.
In New York, Sara Vilankulu, who is on the staff of the National Council of Churches, confirmed her organization sent three of its representatives to Cuba on a charter plane that arrived in Havana around 6 p.m. EST Thursday.
Elian survived a shipwreck in late November. The boat on which he was heading for south Florida capsized, killing his mother and nine other would-be refugees.
The United States refused to return Elian immediately to Cuba, aggravating the already hostile relationship between Washington and Havana.
Roger Bernstein, one of the lawyers retained by Elian’s Miami relatives, said the family is pleased about the grandmothers’ visit and hopes Elian will get to see them.
He said their visit will not affect the proceedings in federal court to determine Elian’s fate.
Attorneys for Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy’s great-uncle, went to federal court Wednesday to challenge the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s ruling that Elian must to be returned to his father in Cuba.
The legal team filed a lawsuit accusing the INS of violating Elian’s due-process rights and asked the judge to prevent the agency from returning the boy before it gives him an asylum hearing.
``It is about protecting Elian’s civil and constitutional rights, the same as if he was any other child,″ said Spencer Eig, a lawyer for the great-uncle.
Many legal experts insist that Elian’s U.S. relatives have no legal standing because their rights do not trump those of his father, his closest relative.
``All along, the legal issue has been who speaks for a 6-year-old boy, and the answer is the closest surviving relative,″ said David Abraham, an immigration law professor at the University of Miami. ``That is the father.″
On Thursday, the federal judge in the case asked lawyers if they preferred he step aside because of his ties to both sides. U.S. District Court Judge James Lawrence King has a son with political ties to Elian’s Miami relatives and a daughter who works for the U.S. government.
King said his son hired Armando Gutierrez, now working as spokesman for those relatives, to help in his re-election bid. King’s daughter is an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami.
Lawyers for Lazaro Gonzalez said they saw no reason for King to recuse himself. U.S. Attorney Tom Scott asked for a day to respond.
Gutierrez also has ties to the Florida judge who ordered Elian to remain in the United States until March, working as a political consultant for Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez during her 1998 election campaign. She said she was not required to remove herself from the case because of the affiliation, a suggestion made by a legal expert.
To WDC, HAV, and INT
From George Watson NYC bureau (212-621-1670)
Notes from interview with Vilankulu (member of NCC’s communications dept)