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Special Event

Reno: Elian Gonzalez's 'Father Should be Able to Speak for Him, and I Think He Should Be With His Father'

Aired January 13, 2000 - 9:30 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Elian Gonzalez is expected to be a key topic at Attorney General Janet Reno's weekly briefing scheduled to begin any moment now. Yesterday, Reno upheld the decision by U.S. immigration officials to send the boy back to his father in Cuba. Elian's relatives in Miami say they will file a suit in federal court next week to try to block the boys return.

Every day seems to bring a new legal twist to the case. For more on what's next, let's bring in our legal analyst Roger Cossack. He is live in Washington this morning.

Roger, good morning.

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Hi, Daryn.

KAGAN: Seems like the Justice Department has spoken and has told the state courts and the family to stay out of this. What do you think about that next possible move of going to federal court trying to block Elian's return?

COSSACK: Well, that's really what's left. This is a -- one of these traditional legal conflicts that come along every now and then between the federal jurisdiction and the state jurisdiction. And we see it in many other guises, but this is one having to do with immigration, and, traditionally, and correctly so, immigration is a federal problem. You know, states can't set their own immigration law.

KAGAN: Roger, I'm going to have to bust in and interrupt you. Janet Reno is holding her weekly media briefing; we want to here what she has to say, so stand by.

COSSACK: OK.

KAGAN: Here's the attorney general.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... is at issue is a father who wants his son home, and grandparents that want their grandson's -- grandson home. And these are bonds that should be honored.

QUESTION: Should they -- can you figure out for the life of you why they wouldn't be willing to come to Miami to be reunited?

RENO: I think they have to speak for themselves.

QUESTION: Would it be easier -- would it be easier to explain to the public, and especially to the community in Miami, if the father did come?

RENO: I think there are many factors that have got to be considered. It depends on the people involved. And what you have involved here is a father who wants his son.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, the father has expressed anxiety at the violence in Miami, especially from the exile community. Would the Justice Department guarantee his safety if he came to Miami to reclaim his son?

RENO: I'm sure that every process would be available to ensure his safety.

QUESTION: Does Justice have view that it's expressed to him on whether he should come here?

RENO: I think, again, it's going to have to be a decision that he makes.

QUESTION: So you haven't said anything to him about -- or the INS or the U.S. government in any capacity hasn't said -- suggested to him that he come or give him the suggestion one way or the other?

RENO: Again, he should be the one that makes that judgment.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, what type of enforcement actions are available to you? What are you -- what are you considering in terms of enforcing this INS action? And why has there not been any enforcement taken so far?

RENO: What we're trying to do is to make sure that the process is clear, that the law is followed, and we will work with everyone to see that that happens.

QUESTION: Would the family need to cooperate? Wouldn't they need to cooperate and actually turn over the boy? And if they don't do that, is there contingency plan for enforcement?

RENO: What should be done here with a little six-year-old boy is that people let the law take its course and then appropriately work together to see that what the law determines is right is done.

QUESTION: But what if the family stands in the way of that? What is the government willing to do?

RENO: We don't do what-ifs. We assume -- or at least I assume everybody's better nature and everybody's desire to comply with the terms of the law.

QUESTION: What evidence is there to suggest that that's a logical assumption?

RENO: I think when it comes right down to it, my hope is that people will look at this little boy and get him into a situation where he can live a normal life without television cameras and the world in his face.

RENO: Can you imagine what it would be like if you were six years old and all of this was happening to you?

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, in terms of the timing -- I know that you expressed in your letter some sense of wanting to resolve this quickly. Can you give us a sense of timing in terms of when you would like to see this resolved, particularly because the boy is going to school, he's making friends, he has a dog, a puppy, he's got relatives? Is there some concern about the psychological...

RENO: Now, what does the dog and the puppy have to do with it?

QUESTION: In the sense of, you know, feeling at home in Miami. Is there some sense that there could be trauma to the child?

RENO: Whatever happens with respect to the little boy, it should be done soon so that he can get on with his life with the puppy.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: There's a published report this morning that the Justice Department plans to go into federal court this week to deal with this issue. Is that correct?

RENO: We're looking at all our options.

QUESTION: So, that's possible then?

RENO: We're looking at all our options.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, on the question of the law that you addressed yesterday in your letter to the Miami relatives -- to the lawyers for the Miami relatives -- you said that the state court judge basically has no jurisdiction here. After receiving your letter, one of the lawyers said, Well, that's a heck of a message from the attorney general to say we can ignore a court order.

What is -- is the government's position that the -- that it is ignoring the state court judge? Or that the state court judge's ruling simply has no application here?

RENO: We were not a party to the state court action, and it is not directed at us. Immigration law is controlled by federal law, and federal law should govern in this situation.

QUESTION: The folks in Miami, though, of course are saying that they don't intend to address an immigration issue. They want to look at the custody issue. And of course they say that is a problem of the state court. Would -- why doesn't the custody issue come first? RENO: The issue at stake here for the federal government is U.S. immigration law, and that's governed by the federal court processes and federal law.

QUESTION: To follow it up -- is custody here irrelevant at this point in the proceeding, when the -- at the -- given the immigration status of this boy?

RENO: The custody circumstances are irrelevant to the federal process by which the federal law must determine who can speak for the boy in making immigration decisions.

QUESTION: Do you fear that with all the talk about not making this case and this boy into a political football, but that is in fact what is happening, that politics have overtaken the legal concerns?

RENO: I hope with all my heart and soul that won't happen. I think it is so important that people of good will come together, work through the processes of the law as soon as possible, and get the boy home to his father.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) you believe any point along the way to avoid this showdown that we seem to be at now?

RENO: I don't know.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you said last week that you had confidence that the community would be able to handle this in an appropriate way. What's your view of how the community has handled it so far, in terms of the atmosphere in which this is taking place?

RENO: I think it's important that we all work together to try to address the issue in the most reasonable way possible. I think when you have a little six-year-old boy at stake, you try do the best you can. And I think it's important for us all to set an example for the child as to how matters like this should be handled.

QUESTION: If Elian were to go to his father and to live in Cuba, is there anything that would prevent him from coming back to Miami to visit his relatives? Would that be something that he could -- he and his father could do?

RENO: That would be up to the father.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, what is the Justice Department position on the Burton subpoena of the boy?

RENO: We're reviewing it.

QUESTION: Do you think you are setting a good example for this little boy?

RENO: I think it's important that all of us act with the best of good will and act like we would want others to act around us, and act like if you had a six-year-old boy how you would like adults to act around him. QUESTION: I must say -- I mean, we've talked about a lot of sensitive issues, and I don't think I've seen you as agitated as you are about this little boy. I mean, do you think people are acting with good will? Or is this just a political game?

RENO: I don't ascribe bad motives to people. I know a lot of the people involved. I know they feel very, very deeply. I just think it's time for all of us to come together and say, "Let us solve the case, and let us make the decision." And what INS has said is that for immigration purposes and federal law, the father should speak for the boy.

QUESTION: On the subject of the congressional subpoena, why is it of concern at all since it's in the future? Is it even a factor to be considered at this point?

RENO: We just want to make sure that we consider it and determine anything that might be relevant based on the subpoena.

QUESTION: But the -- you've come to no conclusion on that?

RENO: No.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, like it or not, Elian Gonzalez has been turned into a political symbol by Fidel Castro, by the exile community, by Chairman Burton, by the various presidential contenders. Isn't the only way to take this out of the political arena and to get to do what's right is to get it in the federal court as soon as possible?

RENO: I won't let you suggest to me the timing of how I do things. But one of the things -- yes, you can always suggest to me and I take that back.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: That, and .50 cents, will get you a cup of coffee anywhere.

RENO: One of the things that I have tried to do is to make sure that we're not part of any effort to make this a political matter.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, it seems very clear that the Florida relatives of Elian Gonzalez are willing and probably will take this to the brink. Sometime, in order to enforce this, you will have to take some kind of enforcement action. Would you ask the family or would you order the family -- have the court order the family to hand the boy over to INS? Would you send in U.S. marshals to take him from his house? If this comes down to it and the family does not cooperate, what can the federal government do to get this boy back to Cuba?

RENO: As we have talked about the political process, I would also urge the wonderful media to stop doing what-ifs and stop setting up dramatic confrontations, and let us all work through this and get to where the right answer is or the boy. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) family's going to do. They're dug in, they have no intention of backing down from their position. Aren't we already at that point?

RENO: I think we need to let the law take its process and then see what happens. And let's not say that there is confrontation, that we'll resolve it. Let us say that the court processes should take their course and then let's see what happens. But let us not create dramatic scenes of -- let's just -- you don't go in and pick up little boys like that. You work through the issue and then everybody sits down and figures out we comply with the law.

QUESTION: Do you still believe in your heart that the family will cooperate and send the boy back to Cuba eventually?

RENO: I believe in the law. I believe that the people involved in this situation care about the little boy and want to do what's right by him. And I think they have also indicated a faith in the legal process. Let us let that happen.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... what the boy himself wants to do, whether he wants to stay or whether he wants to go. And is that relevant in this case, what he wants?

RENO: I think a six-year-old boy -- can you remember when you were six?

(LAUGHTER)

There were some days I wanted to run away from home, and there were other days I wanted my mommy so bad I couldn't stand it. And just remember what it was like when you were six, or try to. And I think you will understand what the range of emotions of a child are. And I think the law has indicated and it's certainly I think the experience of most people that six years old is too young to speak for themselves.

QUESTION: One of the Republican presidential contenders suggested that sending this boy back to Castro's Cuba would be tantamount to sending a child to Hitler's Germany. Do you share that fear about Castro's Cuba?

RENO: I don't think that there is a comparison.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) have to do with state officials in Florida at this point, with Governor Bush's office about how this should be handled outside the legal process?

RENO: I think some of the state officials have made their position clear, and we always welcome their position. But we're trying to do it based on federal law.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, given the gap, how do you bridge it? How do you do as you wish -- bring people closer together on this issue? RENO: I try not to let people get my goat, try to believe in people, try to get back constantly in all of these discussions, no matter who's on the phone or who's here or what the circumstances are, to the fact that there is a little six-year-old boy, who survived one of the most traumatic events that any child could experience: to lose his mother there in the Gulf Stream, to float for as long as he did, and live to come ashore under the circumstances that he did. We've just got to think about that little boy.

RENO: And that's what his family in Miami is thinking about; that's what his father in Cuba is thinking about. Let's figure out what we do as soon as possible and do it in a dignified, thoughtful way to get that child to his father.

QUESTION: Have you thought about personally calling the family and discussing it?

RENO: I think we need to work through these issues and they are represented by counsel, and I think it appropriate that any discussion be through counsel.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) going to follow what the law says. It sounds like -- as if you truly believe he is better off in Cuba than he is in Miami.

RENO: The -- what I believe is that his father should speak for him. I think it must be his father's determination. And I think that, again, you should be careful in what you think other people are saying or believing.

I think his father should be able to speak for him, and I think he should be with his father. His father might be half way around the world. His father might be in Miami. His father might be in Cuba. But the father has expressed a wish that the child be with him and for the process to return him. And I think that's what the decision should be.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, the attention on this case has caused a group of Haitians in Florida to say that they are not -- there's many times where children of Haitian immigrants are found at sea or picked up and are immediately returned to Haiti and that they're not treated the same as this Cuban boy is and that there is a different way Haitians are being handled. Is that a matter of law? Is that just because of the Cuban Adjustment Act?

RENO: There are different situations with respect to Cuba and with respect to Haiti, and the nature of the government in the two nations is different.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, this boy came over on November...

RENO: I'm sorry, I can't hear you.

QUESTION: Oh, I'm sorry. This boy made it to Miami on November 25th and for a couple of weeks we were asking you and everybody in the government what should be done with him. And everybody said we've got to wait for the law, and now everybody says now he has to return to his father. What went on in those couple of weeks when they were sort of -- from we're not too sure to now it's sort of a big push to bring him back to his father?

RENO: We've had the opportunity to fully review the matter, talk with the father, see what his determination was and satisfy ourselves that there was an appropriate relationship and that he did have the authority under federal law to speak for the child.

QUESTION: On the -- if we might change the subject briefly. On Microsoft, are the reports correct that you are planning to ask the court to break up the company, if they don't voluntarily do so?

RENO: This matter is in mediation, and anytime something is in mediation, we should...

KAGAN: We've been listening to Attorney General Janet Reno during her weekly media briefing. The main topic for the last 20-or- so minutes has been the topic of Elian Gonzalez. Ms. Reno, again, reiterating her feeling that the father and grandparents in Cuba want their son home, and as Ms. Reno said, those bonds must be honored.

Let's bring back Roger Cossack, who is listening in from our Washington bureau, to continue our conversation.

Roger, we have a number of issues here. We have immigration, but it also seems like -- and we have a court issue and we also have a federal versus state issue. How does this play out when you have one thing going in the state courts and another coming from the Justice Department and potentially going into federal courts.

COSSACK: Well, I think eventually this will all end up in federal court -- excuse me -- for a determination of a couple of different things: one, whether or not the state court in fact did have jurisdiction to make its decision. Remember, what they did they did in state court, they went in and they said, who should have custody of the child. But Janet Reno and the immigration service says, look, this is an immigration matter rather than a custody matter, and we have already decided, and we, the immigration service, have the jurisdiction to decide who should speak for the child, and we have decided that the father should speak for the child, and his -- the father lives in Cuba and the father, Elian's father, wants him back, and that's what we believe the best thing to do is.

Obviously, look, the real problem here is, if they get through federal court and they get through all the courts and the courts decide that young Elian has to go back to Cuba, the difficulty is, and the part that Janet Reno is sidestepping is, you know, how do they affect that transfer? What happens if the -- his Cuban -- his Florida family says, we're not giving him up, and the specter of that horrible situation where supposedly where maybe a forceable situation could arise. I mean, that's just horrible and terrible. So, what she is hoping more than anything, of course, is that once the courts decide there will be cooperation to return the child.

KAGAN: In fact, we heard the attorney general encouraging the media not to come up with these dramatic what-if possibilities, and yet as you mentioned, she did not come up with any possibilities of how they might get the -- Elian back to Cuba.

COSSACK: Well, there's this -- there's this, obviously, hopeful situation that everybody will sit down and say, OK, look, we've gone through the courts, we must follow the law, you will turn over young Elian and he will be returned to his father. You know, hopefully if that is the outcome, that is what will happen. I mean, the worst thing that could possibly happen here is if there -- if this does turn into a spectacle or a nightmare where marshals have to come in and forcibly remove the child, I can't see that happening. I hope that doesn't happen. But, you know, when there is -- when there is an order of the court, it can be enforced. Let us hope that this is not what happens in this case.

KAGAN: Hoping that the adults can act like grown-ups.

COSSACK: That's right.

KAGAN: Roger Cossack in Washington. Thank you, Roger.

COSSACK: Thank you.

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