The father of Elian Gonzalez pleaded passionately Thursday for Americans to lobby Washington and demand that he be immediately reunited with his 6-year-old boy.
“He’s my son. He belongs to me. He belongs next to his family,” said Juan Miguel Gonzalez, speaking briefly to a small knot of television cameras outside the Bethesda, Md., home where he is staying.
Not long after Gonzalez spoke, President Clinton said in the White House Rose Garden that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno is authorized to transfer the boy immediately to his father, particularly in light of an appellate court ruling Wednesday that does not bar her from doing so.
“That is the law, and the main argument of the family in Miami for not doing so has now been removed,” Clinton said.
“The court has now said he shouldn’t go back to Cuba. The Justice Department agrees with that, and [the father] has agreed to that. So there now is no conceivable argument for his not being able to be reunited with his son.”
In his comments, Gonzalez appeared nervous but impassioned, speaking in Spanish but not reading from a prepared text as he did two weeks ago when he first arrived in Washington on a mission to return his child to Cuba.
However, Gonzalez also seemed well aware that a federal appeals court on Wednesday left the door open for Reno to use force if necessary to transfer custody of the boy from relatives in Miami to him.
“It pains me to see what they are doing with my son and the abuse they are committing,” he said of the family of his uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, which has been caring for the boy in Miami’s Little Havana community since he was shipwrecked on Thanksgiving Day.
“My son is a child of only 6 years. He’s a boy like any other boy. . . . Please, anyone who has feelings, anyone who knows a father’s love for his son, help me. Don’t let them smother this in politics. It’s just a father and a son. . . .
“I ask you, please, to call on the phone, write letters, to do everything possible.”
Plea Elicits Calls to Justice Department
After he spoke, he hugged Joan Brown Campbell, a close supporter who formerly served as secretary-general of the National Council of Churches.
“I have a deep respect for the attorney general,” Campbell said. “But there comes a point where you say everything has been tried, now this reunion of this father and child needs to take place.”
Gonzalez’s plea to the public generated many calls to the Justice Department in support of his cause.
Within about an hour of his televised appearance, “the phones were lighting up” in Reno’s office, and the public affairs office also had received several dozen calls supporting Juan Miguel Gonzalez’s cause, said department spokeswoman Carole Florman.
“It’s terrific to see people express their views, and we’re glad to see people agree with the position the department has taken,” Florman said.
But she added that the department’s actions, particularly the sensitive question of whether to send agents to retrieve Elian, “can’t be based on public pressure or outcry.”
Reno Reviews Options in the Case
During the day, Reno met with top advisors and with Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to review her legal and logistical options should she decide to retrieve the boy, a department source said.
“Federal law enforcement officials are telling her what the situation is--if an enforcement action is planned, when and how to go in,” the official said.
That option remains on the table, and Reno “will make a decision when she’s ready,” the official said.
Reno canceled a trip to Montana for a detention center groundbreaking and returned early from a visit to Oklahoma City to meet with her advisors Wednesday night. One key subject of discussion, officials said, was a legal brief that the Justice Department plans to file Monday in response to the Miami relatives’ motion for a permanent injunction.
Justice Department lawyers plan to attack the idea that the INS should have given a full review to Elian’s petition for political asylum, lodged by his Miami relatives.
In Miami, there was no immediate reaction to Gonzalez’s plea. But earlier Thursday, one of the lawyers for the Miami relatives’ attorneys said that Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy’s great-uncle, hopes to meet with Juan Miguel Gonzalez.
If Elian’s father will not come to Miami, said Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, “the family will go almost anywhere, almost at any time, the earlier the better.”
The only places ruled out as meeting sites, said Garcia-Pedrosa, are the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, and the Bethesda, Md., home of the Cuban diplomat where the boy’s father has been staying.
The Miami relatives previously had said that they--with Elian--would travel within driving distance of Miami to meet the boy’s father, in deference to Elian’s fear of flying. So the latest offer is new.
But one condition remains, said Garcia-Pedrosa: The family must be assured that Elian will be permitted to return to their Miami home after that initial meeting.
That condition is unacceptable to Juan Miguel Gonzalez, according to his attorney, Gregory B. Craig.
“The only meeting we really care about,” said Craig on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday, “is the reunion with the son.”
In Bethesda, a small plane flew overhead trailing a sign encouraging Juan Miguel Gonzalez to go to Florida.
“Miami welcomes the father for Easter,” the sign said.
Times staff writer Mike Clary in Miami contributed to this story.
The latest coverage on Elian Gonzalez is available on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/elian