Student reactions mixed over seizure of Elian

by David Anderson

The University community reacted with mixed opinions Thursday to the latest events in the Elian Gonzalez story.
While some students did not want to see the 6-year-old sent back to Cuba with his father, many, like John McCullough, a history junior, think Elian’s return is justified.
“I think that people who think that he should stay are not looking at the whole picture,” McCullough said. “Back in Cuba, it’s his culture. That’s where he belongs.”
An Atlanta federal court announced Thursday it had given Elian’s father the right to intervene in the legal debate about an asylum request applied for by the boy’s Miami relatives. This brings the situation one step closer to keeping the boy and his father together.
Fishermen found Elian floating off the Florida coast last November. The boy’s mother was lost at sea, and the authorities turned Elian over to his great-uncle in Miami.
Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who lives in Cadenas, Cuba, pushed U.S. authorities to regain custody of the child. But family members in Miami are fighting back to keep him in the United States.
Following months of discussion and a decision from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to return Elian to Cuba, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered armed agents to seize the boy from uncooperative Miami relatives Saturday in a controversial predawn raid.
The main point students were concerned about was whether Juan Miguel was a suitable guardian. But August Nimtz, a University political science professor, said it was an abomination Elian was not returned to his father earlier.
“I think that family is more important than the conditions you live in,” said Tara Reinhart, a family social science freshman.
But others said the U.S. government should respect the mother’s effort to escape Cuba.
“It seems a shame to send (Elian) back,” said Ryan Kronzer, an architecture graduate student. “I think that if he was estranged from his father in Cuba, he really should stay (in the U.S.).”

Legal and political battles
David Weissbrodt, a law professor who teaches immigration law, said the principal immigration issue is whether a person of Elian’s age can apply for political asylum.
U.S. law stipulates that “any alien” physically present in the U.S. may apply for asylum. The question is whether a 6-year-old is capable of making an application of that kind, he said.
Some students believe politicians are using the issue to further their interests because the United States is in an election year.
“They’re just saying what they’re supposed to say,” McCullough said.
Media attention to Elian’s story has contributed to the political dialogue, which some students believe is unnecessary and exploitive. But while many are tired of hearing about Elian every day, some students are starting to gain interest in the debate, particularly since the INS armed action.
Opinions are divided regarding Saturday’s raid. Though the use of armed agents was generally not approved of by the University community, many students felt Reno was right to act.
“It didn’t seem like it was the right course of action,” said Chris Nordby, an English sophomore.
Nimtz, who went to Cuba with a group of students during spring break, said he is skeptical when it comes to giving INS police more power and liberty of action.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Miami leaders said they were surprised the attorney general would resort to force when they were so close to reaching an agreement.
“I think (Reno) painted herself in a box,” Nimtz said. “This (controversy) was her making.”
Many students are also concerned that, from a political standpoint, the Elian debate has become a platform for each party’s interests.
The debate has turned into a battle between the United States and Cuba, Democrats and Republicans, and the boy ends up the loser in the battle, said John Olinger, an English freshman.
“He doesn’t know what’s going on, and I think all he wants to do is be back with his family,” said Liz Naylor, an advertising sophomore.
And in an issue as complex as the custody battle over Elian, many students wonder what the point of the controversy is.
“If Elian wasn’t from Cuba, it wouldn’t even be an issue,” Kronzer said.

David Anderson covers international perspectives and professional schools and welcomes comments at [email protected].