WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service ordered the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez yesterday to bring the 6-year-old Cuban boy to a meeting in the Miami area today with his grandmothers.
After a series of failed negotiations, the INS ordered the boy's great-uncle to bring him to the meeting, at the Miami Beach home of Jeanne O'Laughlin, a sister in the Dominican order who is president of Barry University.
The Justice Department said last night that lawyers for the boy's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, would comply. Gonzalez is seeking to retain custody of Elian, in defiance of an INS ruling this month that requires his return to his father in Cuba.
"This site is an appropriate neutral location that would permit a private meeting," Michael A. Pearson, an executive associate commissioner for the INS, wrote yesterday to Gonzalez's lawyers. "It is a reasonable distance from Lazaro Gonzalez' house, it is located within Miami-Dade County, and it entails no more travel than some of the other places Elian has visited during his stay with Mr. Gonzalez."
The INS had threatened to take Elian away from his great-uncle while the boy's legal status in this country is being determined had Gonzalez not agreed to let Elian meet with his grandmothers.
The boy's grandmothers arrived from Cuba on Monday to try to see young Elian in Miami for the first time since he was pulled from the choppy waters off Florida last Thanksgiving. His mother and stepfather, among others, died in their attempt to reach American shores.
The grandmothers decided to leave Miami without having seen Elian once it became clear that their invitation to a family dinner would have required them to confront several hundred Cuban-Americans who were rallying outside the great-uncle's home in support of keeping Elian in the United States.
The international battle over the child's future has become a volatile political issue, involving a well-organized constituency in a vote-rich state during an election year. Yesterday, the grandmothers, Mariela Quintana and Raquel Rodriguez, made the rounds on Capitol Hill, pleading for help from sympathetic lawmakers, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.
"He belongs in Cuba," said an emotional Quintana, Elian's paternal grandmother. "He was born in Cuba, and he's a Cuban citizen."
But there are powerful voices in Congress from both parties who want to place that decision in state court in Florida. The lawmakers say that the boy's plight under the repressive Communist regime of President Fidel Castro must be considered in any decision to send Elian back to Cuba.
Sen. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican, has proposed legislation that would take the unusual step of conferring citizenship on Elian, who remains in the country without official approval while lawyers are seeking asylum on his behalf. Mack contends that such legislation would eliminate any immigration concerns and leave only custody questions standing.
Mack's bill is backed by senior Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. But it has also garnered some support across the aisle. Among the legislation's original sponsors are three Democrats: Sens. Bob Graham of Florida, Charles S. Robb of Virginia and Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey. In the House, Rep. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who is of Cuban descent, has joined Republican colleagues in support of a similar measure.
On the other side of the issue, Democratic senators, including Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Barbara Boxer of California, promised to filibuster Mack's bill. After questioning Quintana and Rodriguez in Dodd's office, Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Elian's situation had been mischaracterized by those who would keep him in America.
In remarks at a news conference yesterday, President Clinton did not rule out the possibility of vetoing Mack's bill.
"At a minimum," Clinton said, "I would like to see this court case played out before the Congress takes action."
The episode has been used by Castro to fuel anti-American demonstrations and by many Cuban exiles in Florida as the flash point for protests against Castro's regime.
But it has also inspired anger among Cuban emigres toward the Clinton administration, which they perceive as having given the Castro government legitimacy by ordering that Elian be returned to his father.
In an advertisement taken out in yesterday's Washington Times by a prominent Cuban-American activist, a letter presented as though written by Elian's dead mother to Hillary Rodham Clinton begged her to intervene to enable the boy to stay in Florida.
That further incensed the boy's grandmothers, said Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a Democrat from New York who chaperoned them around Capitol Hill yesterday.