Family, family, family. Preserve it. Strengthen it. Respect it. Keep the family together, despite the roiling forces of modernism. Because this is presidential election season, we're hearing odes to greatness and the value of the family even more often than we're hearing the phrase "soft money donations."

So if the family is so sacred, how come the two leading presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush (not to mention the even more family-obsessed Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes), want to prevent Elian Gonzalez from going back to his father in Cuba?

Bush, who works the word "family" into every third sentence on the campaign trial--whose entire candidacy is, in a sense, a creation of reverence for a father--says he wants Congress to pass an emergency bill to make Elian a citizen, so that the boy does not return to his dad.

Gore, who campaigned in Iowa under giant banners that read "Strengthening America's Families"--okay, so technically he made no promises about Cuban families--says the Clinton administration's recommendation that Elian go home should be "appealed." And like Bush, Gore wouldn't be in the presidential race if he hadn't grown up with his father, a U.S. senator.

Of course, Gore's and Bush's views have nothing whatsoever to do with the upcoming Florida primary, in March. Yet it seems revealing that although all major presidential candidates endlessly praise the family, only Bill Bradley has suggested that Elian ought to go home to his father. Bradley says this only in roundabout fashion, opining that he is loath to "second-guess" the Immigration and Naturalization Service recommendation that the boy be repatriated.

Presidential candidates are hardly the only ones to praise the family while advocating that Elian be kept apart from his father. Senator Connie Mack of Florida, a Republican, has proposed legislation that could make Elian an instant citizen; Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, a Democrat, has cosponsored it, giving the concept bipartisan backing. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who often goes on about family values, has said he will rush the bill to the floor. Surely they will call it the Freedom for Elian Act of 2000 or something equally grand--probably not the Anti-Family Act of 2000.

Here's the factual update, for anyone having trouble following the twists and turns of this story. Elian was rescued off Florida on November 24 after his mother, her boyfriend, and eight other adults drowned when their boat fleeing Cuba capsized. Elian's mother was divorced from his father, who did not know she was attempting to take him to the United States. U.S. immigration law bars claims of asylum by those rescued at sea; only someone who makes it to American soil can ask asylum. (Filing for normal, legal immigration to the United States requires years of waiting time.) Technically Elian entered the country illegally when the Coast Guard cutter brought him to shore, and because of this the INS ruled that he should return to Cuba.

But the INS only advised that Elian return; it didn't send federal marshals to deport him, instead granting a "parole" that allows him to live in Miami while the issue is debated. Numerous lawsuits have since been filed, including one from a Miami relative asserting that Elian's dad must be an "unfit father" if he desires that the boy grow up under Castro's tyranny. The INS threatened to deport Elian immediately if Miami's Cuban-exile community didn't permit his grandmothers, making their much-publicized visit, to meet with him.

Both INS Commissioner Doris Meissner and Attorney General Janet Reno have said that as a matter of immigration law, Elian must go home. Congressional action to confer on him honorary citizenship would change that, though this privilege has been granted to only a handful of people (Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa among them) and, if given to Elian, would prompt the question of why millions of others from impoverished or despotic nations, who long for the freedom and affluence of the United States, are not granted special citizenship, too.

Other legislation, expected to be introduced in the House of Representatives, would make Elian a "permanent resident," allowing him to decide for himself, when he turns 18, what country he wants to call home--which would again prompt the question of why one person should be singled out for a special privilege that millions of others, including millions of Cubans, are denied.

Now back to the politics. President Clinton is so far the most prominent political leader to declare that Elian should go home. Citing family, Clinton said that Elian "would have better economic opportunity if he remained here, but all the evidence indicates that his father genuinely loved him."

Clinton may have what he views as the national interest, not Elian's interest, first in mind. Since the August 1994 "boat lift," in which 30,000 Cuban refugees came to the United States while hundreds of others died at sea, Washington and Havana have maintained an uneasy agreement by which Cuban authorities try to prevent anyone from leaving, while the Coast Guard sends back anyone it intercepts. Obviously the United States decision to cooperate in keeping Cubans in Cuba can be debated; the problem is that if our doors were thrown open, most of the island's population would want to come here. Clinton may fear that making an exception for Elian will cause Castro to retaliate by allowing new waves of boatloads to leave Cuba, creating a much bigger political problem than the fate of one confused boy.

But at least Clinton, who often praises the family, is being consistent by saying that Elian should be with his dad. Wouldn't it be nice if the leading presidential candidates could be consistent, too? Or are they kidding us when they praise the family?

Cuba today is a troubled nation, but the situation has no parallel to trying to escape from Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia--quality of life in Cuba is reasonable, and the dictator Castro can't last forever. It would not be immoral to return a boy to Cuba, if the father who awaits him there "genuinely" loves him. That, and not the Florida primary, should be the first issue in the Elian controversy.

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