WASHINGTON -- Elian Gonzalez's father pleaded with a federal court yesterday not to let U.S. laws on political asylum be used to restrict his right "to raise his child as he sees fit, and where he sees fit."
Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the Cuban father of the 6-year-old boy at the center of a deeply emotional court fight, argued that it would be "a travesty" to make the child's fate depend on an asylum case that he said could run as long as six years.
Elian's great-uncle in Miami, Lazaro Gonzalez, has sued to require federal immigration officials to consider granting the boy asylum so he could remain in the United States, perhaps permanently. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta is weighing the issue and will hold a hearing on May 11.
The laws governing asylum, the father said in a new filing in the appeals court, "should not be interpreted to impose an automatic and lengthy restriction on a parent's freedom to raise a family, even if that parent is a Cuban."
For the first time since Juan Miguel came to the United States from Cuba 3 1/2 weeks ago in hopes of retrieving his son, the father is a participant in the meandering court proceedings over Elian's future. The appeals court said last week that Juan Miguel could join in the case to assert his own rights, but not Elian's.
The father and his lawyer used that opportunity to make a simple request: Allow him and his son to live together as they wish and to return to Cuba, if that is what Juan Miguel chooses.
The boy has been in this country since Thanksgiving Day, when he was found floating in an inner tube off the coast of Florida, a survivor of a Cuban boat capsizing that killed his mother.
"Juan Miguel thinks," his lawyer, Gregory B. Craig, said in the new filing, "that a six-year-old boy found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean and now caught up in the American legal system craves the familiarity of his own bedroom in Cardenas," in Cuba.
He added: "Juan Miguel has decided that Elian should come home with him, and neither state officials nor federal courts are equipped to review such parental decisions."
Disputing the great-uncle's claim that the boy needs asylum to avoid political persecution in Cuba, the father sketched this outlook:
"When Elian gets home to Cardenas, he will be greeted by his friends and family. He will return to school. He will play in the streets of his hometown. He will take trips to the beach and the resort where his father works."
The document reminded the court that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has already concluded that Elian would not be eligible for asylum even if the appeals court forces it to consider the issue.
"To prolong this case by requiring an asylum hearing ... would result in a substantial interference with Juan Miguel's basic right to raise his child and would cause great damage to his family," his attorney wrote.
The filing also contended that the boy did not recognize what he was doing when, while living with his great-uncle, he signed his first name to an asylum application.
"That this six-year-old child could not have had the slightest understanding of the meaning of that form is evident, not only from life experience, but also from the fact that the boy does not read Spanish, much less English," the father argued. The form is written in English.
Juan Miguel and his lawyer said they "harbor serious doubts" about the believability of statements Elian made on a videotape, at his great-uncle's home, that he wished to stay in this country.
The document also drew sharp contrasts between the close and continuing relationship the father said he has had with Elian and the only recent contact between the boy and his "distant relatives" in Miami.
Juan Miguel said that Lazaro Gonzalez had visited Elian once in Cuba and, according to the father, "Lazaro paid no attention to the boy during that visit."
The document also described the "despair" of Juan Miguel when he learned that his former wife had left Cuba with Elian and that their boat had capsized.
While the appeals court has, for now, refused to let Juan Miguel become the legal representative of Elian during the court case, the father asked the court to give "due weight to this father's claim to speak for Elian."