Judge denies Cuban boy refugee status

The chances that six-year-old Elian Gonzalez will be sent back to his father in Cuba increased sharply yesterday after a Miami judge ruled that he was not entitled to a political asylum hearing. Relatives of the boy, who has been at the centre of a human and diplomatic tug of war for the past three months, had gone to court to try to establish his right to remain in the United States as a political refugee.

In a ruling handed down yesterday - 10 days after the hearing - Judge Michael Moore upheld the decision of the US Immigration Service, that the boy should return to his home in Cuba. Immigration officials had argued that only the boy's father had the right to speak for him, and that his wishes should be respected.

Judge Moore agreed, saying: "As a general matter, when dealing with a child this young, the immigration law, like other areas of law, looks to the wishes of the surviving parent." Elian's mother drowned when the boat in which she and a dozen others were trying to flee Cuba capsized off the southern Florica coast. Elian was found, floating in a rubber tube, on the eve of the American Thanksgiving Day holiday and given into the custody of his uncle's family in Miami.

Once the holiday weekend was over, though, Elian's fate swiftly became the subject of a furious stand-off between the Cuban emigré community in Miami and Havana. In Cuba, officially orchestrated street demonstrations called for the immediate return of Elian to his father, who also made emotional pleas for his son's return.

The branch of the family in Miami claimed, however, that the father was speaking under duress and really wanted his son to remain in the US. Cuban emigrés in Miami mounted their own street protests in defence of Elian's right to stay in the US, and the child was showered with gifts, including a puppy, from US Congressmen and others who supported his cause. They said they did not understand why, if he felt so strongly, the child's father was not prepared to come to Florida in person to plead his case.

In what was seen as an attempt by Cuba to match the public relations effort by the Miami Cubans, both Elian's grandmothers travelled to the US to present their case and were eventually able to meet their grandson. The effect of the visit was neutralised, however, after the Miami nun who presided at that meeting said several days later that she believed Elian had become attached to his Miami relatives and should stay with them.

It is now open to Elian's father to come to the US to collect him. But if, as expected, the Miami family appeals against yesterday's ruling, the case could drag on for several more weeks.

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