Elian Gonzalez

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Elian Gonzalez


By: Alan Diaz

Date: April 22, 2000

Source: © Reuters/Corbis.

About the Photographer: Alan Diaz joined the Associated Press as a freelance photographer in 1994, and became a full time AP photographer in 2000. This photograph earned Diaz the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for Breaking News Photography.


In November 1999, Elizabet Brotons, her five year old son, Elian, and twelve other Cuban citizens attempted to cross the channel between Cuba and southern Florida by boat. Elian's mother and seven others died when their motorboat sank. Adrift on inner tubes, Elian and two adults survived; Elian was rescued by a fishermen named Donato Dalrymple in the seas off the coast of Florida.

Elian's parents were divorced, and Elizabet Brotons's boyfriend, who lived in Miami, smuggled Cuban refugees into the United States. Elizabet Brotons had taken the boy from Cuba without the permission of his father, Juan, who had remarried and had an infant son with his new wife. In the United States Elian was given over to the care of relatives who had fled Cuba when Fidel Castro had come to power in the 1960s; Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro, and his cousin, Marisleysis, were his primary caregivers, and would become embroiled in the custody battle that evolved over the next seven months.

Juan Gonzalez argued that Elian should be returned to Cuba to be with him; he had not granted his ex-wife permission to take Elian to the United States. Elian's Miami relatives, however, believed that Elizabet Brotons had embarked on the journey to give Elian a life in America; in their eyes returning the boy to Cuba would be an affront to his mother's sacrifice. Immigration authorities struggled with the issue. Elian was granted temporary permission to remain in the United States, and U.S. relatives began the process to apply for political and economic asylum for the little boy.

Fidel Castro issued a strongly worded demand for the boy's return; immigration officials ruled that he could stay, while Senator Jesse Helms called for special legislation to permit Elian to become a citizen of the United States. Nationwide polls showed that 56 percent of Americans believed Elian should be returned to his father, but among Cubans in south Florida that number shrank to 10 percent. U.S. policy toward Cuban refugees used the "wet feet/dry feet" approach: If a Cuban refugee can reach dry land—"dry feet"—he or she is eligible for asylum and citizenship under the 1966 Adjustment Act, which gives Cubans special status and citizenship eligibility after one year of residency. If, however, the refugee is captured by the Coast Guard in the water—"wet feet"—the refugee is returned to Cuba, possibly to face harsh penalties under Castro's Communist regime.

The Cuban community in south Florida took the firm position that Elian belonged in the United States. In January 2000 U.S. officials ruled that Elian should return, and asked that Juan Gonzalez come to take his son home. Fidel Castro refused to permit Gonzalez to leave, placing the burden on U.S. authorities, leading to speculation that Castro feared Gonzalez's defection. In the meantime Elian's relatives in the United States filed for custody of the child. By April 2000 Attorney General Janet Reno determined that Elian's father, not his U.S. relatives, spoke for Elian's needs.

Marisleysis Gonzalez, Elian's second cousin, vocally asserted her family's refusal to give Elian over to U.S. authorities for deportation. When Castro permitted Elian's grandmothers to visit him in February 2000 Marisleysis Gonzalez claimed that Elian had rejected the grandmothers, while the grandmothers claimed that Elian seemed hardened and different. Cuban-American groups sided with Marisleysis and her father, Lazaro; Cuban activists threatened to encircle their home to prevent Elian's removal. A video was released by the U.S. relatives showing Elian saying he wished to remain in the United States; in a September 2005 interview, however, Elian claimed to have been coached to make that statement.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas publicly stated that local authorities would not assist federal authorities with the boy's removal, leading to a showdown between federal and local authorities, and between the Cuban exile community and the U.S. Attorney General. In early April 2000 the Attorney General worked to negotiate with U.S. relatives for Elian's release, but the relatives insisted on retaining custody of Elian. An April 13, 2000, deadline for his release was defied by Lazaro and Marisleysis Gonzalez. On April 22, Janet Reno ordered U.S. officials to take Elian by force.



See primary source image.


In the early hours of April 22, 2000, Immigration and Naturalization Services agents stormed the Gonzalez house, bypassing volunteers who surrounded it. Using pepper spray and armed with rifles, the agents entered the home, where they found fisherman Donato Dalrymple holding Elian, crouched in a closet and hiding from the melee. Taken at gunpoint, Elian was handed over to a Spanish speaking social worker, Betty Mills, who assured Elian he was going home to see his father. More than 100 protestors were held at bay during the raid; after Elian's removal the crowd increased to more than 300, and Miami Mayor Joe Carollo issued a statement referring to the federal agents as "athiests" who "don't believe in God."

Elian was returned to his father within four hours of the raid; Juan Gonzalez traveled to Andrews Air Force Base for the reunion. For the next two months Elian and his father remained in the United States while Elian's Miami relatives exhausted all legal avenues for keeping him within the United States. The Cuban exiles argued that Elian had entered Florida under the "dry feet" rule, and that Elian should be granted political asylum. On June 1, 2000, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Juan Gonzalez was the only adult with legal authority to make decisions for Elian, and on June 28, 2000, the two returned to Cuba.

The Elian Gonzalez case tested issues of child custody, children's rights in immigration, political asylum, and Cuban-American policy and relations, and it caused huge political upheaval between the federal government and the Cuban exile community nationwide. The U.S. government determined that Elian's father—regardless of citizenship status in Cuba or elsewhere—had priority in custody and decision-making over all other interested adults, even in complex matters of immigration and asylum.



Gibbs, Nancy, and Michael Duffy. "The Elian Grab." Time Magazine, May 1, 2000.

Web sites

BBCNews.com. "What Happened to Elian Gonzalez?" April 22, 2005 〈http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4471099.stm〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

PBS Online Newshour. "The Elian Gonzalez Case." 〈http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/law/elian/〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "Elian Gonzalez." 〈http://www.uscis.gov/graphics/publicaffairs/ElianG.htm〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).