WASHINGTON -- Trying again to head off the return to Cuba of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, his Miami relatives have mounted a new defense of the power of U.S. courts to force the Justice Department to rule on whether to grant the boy asylum.
His great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez told a federal judge in Miami, "If the attorney general wishes to remove Elian to Cuba, she cannot do so without first considering his asylum request."
That is a duty that Attorney General Janet Reno must perform, Gonzalez said, and a duty that clearly can be enforced in court.
U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler is considering a request by the Justice Department to throw out the Florida relatives' court case, which seeks to keep Elian in the country. The relatives replied to the Justice Department request on Monday; their plea to keep the case alive was made public yesterday.
Their case contends that Elian is entitled to political asylum because he and his relatives worry about how he will be treated if returned to his father in Havana. His relatives contend that the boy's father is being manipulated by Fidel Castro's regime for political purposes.
Reno has ruled that only the boy's father can make legal decisions for him, because Elian is too young to do so himself. She also has accepted the father's decision against seeking asylum for Elian.
If Hoeveler rejects the relatives' challenge, and such a ruling withstands a likely appeal, the Justice Department then would be free to arrange for the boy's return to Cuba. Reno has concluded that under U.S. immigration law, the boy's father has the legal right to have him returned.
Elian's mother died at sea in November as she was trying to bring the boy to the United States. The boy was found floating alone in an inner tube off the Florida coast.
His great-uncle's new filing in court ignored the Justice Department view that no asylum request remains to consider. Lazaro Gonzalez insists that his filing is still pending and must be resolved before anything else is done.
Hoeveler will hold a hearing Tuesday on the issue of his authority to review Reno's decisions about Elian's fate.
In Havana yesterday, the Communist Party daily Granma published a letter from Elian's father to Reno, demanding the return of his son.