Elian Gonzalez (1993– ) Cuban immigrant
Elián González became the focus of an intense public debate over America’s Cuban immigration policy after surviving a shipwreck in which his mother died during a November 1999 escape from Cuba. After living with Miami relatives for five months, the six-year-old was forcibly removed by U.S. marshals on April 22, 2000, and on June 28 was returned to Cuba.
González was one of three Cubans rescued from the sea on November 25, 1999, after his mother and 10 others drowned following the swamping of their small boat. He lived in Miami with a great-uncle, Lázaro, who immediately began the process for securing political asylum or refugee status for his nephew. Meanwhile González’s father, Juan Miguel, claimed that his son had been kidnapped and demanded that he be returned to Cuba. For the next five months, an international diplomatic battle was waged in the world media, involving both custody rights and immigration policy. At various times, González indicated that he did, or did not, want to return. On January 5, 2000, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) determined that the boy’s father should decide where he would live, but González’s uncle refused to relinquish him and sued to retain custody. Hundreds of protesters, many of whom were Cubans who had themselves fled Fidel Castro’s regime, took to the streets the following day, arguing against the boy’s return to communist Cuba. Miami mayor Joseph Carollo and Miami-Dade County mayor Alex Penelas publicly supported the protests. On April 22, U.S. attorney general Janet Reno ordered federal marshals to seize González and reunite him with his father, who had flown to the United States from Cuba. In June, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals upheld the INS decision that a parent alone could act for a child in matters of immigration. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the federal court decision supporting the INS decision, González and his father returned to Cuba on June 28.
Almost a decade after the end of the cold war, the Elián González case demonstrated the potency of anti-Castro feelings among Cuban Americans and tested the resolve of government policy makers intent on transcending cold war attitudes regarding Cuban immigration. Although Castro refrained from publicly exploiting González, the boy’s father was promoted within the Communist Party and awarded the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Medal, Cuba’s highest civilian honor. The González family received special privileges but also was shadowed by Cuban agents to ensure that there was no further communication with the Miami relatives.