Elián Gonzalez’s Story
Nearly twenty-four years ago on November 25, 1999, a five-year-old boy, Elián Gonzalez, sat on a makeshift raft along with several other Cubans, seeking political refuge in the Florida Straits. The deadly passage bore strong currents, tropical storms, and large swells, as the inherent dangers of the voyage resulted in the drownings of Eliáns mother as well as nearly a dozen other passengers on the raft.
In the 1990s, following an economic downturn in Cuba, tens of thousands migrated from Cuba, escaping the harsh prospects of the economy. The boat journey taken by many refugees was known to be riddled with fatalities as the passengers encountered various environmental hazards and diseases. While the story of Elián’s journey from Cuba resonates by itself, it was only the beginning of what would become an international crisis, crossing into the realm of family custody battles as well as pushing the limits of U.S. immigration law as a young boy attempted to seek asylum.
After Elián was found three miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale by two fishermen following a shipwreck that killed his mother along with eleven other passengers, his safe arrival in Miami marked his mother’s dying wish. He was soon released from the hospital into the custody of his uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, marking the beginning of where immigration law and parental custody bear a dynamic intersection.
On November 28, 1999, three days after Elián had been found, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elián’s father who resided in Cuba filed a complaint to the United Nations, bringing attention to his custodial demands as he demanded his son be brought back to Cuba. After Florida courts took the responsibility of settling this dispute, attorneys for Elián’s relatives in Florida filed a request for his political asylum, the protection granted to an individual fleeing from their country as a political refugee. If granted, this would have ultimately allowed Elián to stay in Florida with his relatives, without having to return to Cuba to his father.
Although Elián was caught in this dramatic intersection between custodial battles and his attempts to gain political asylum, immigration law fell on Cuba’s side. The Immigration and Naturalization Services had the authority to deem Elián’s father in Cuba his legal guardian, overruling a Florida family court that gave Elián’s uncle custody.
Every day, for four months, crowds gathered outside of the Gonzalez family home in Little Havanna in support of Elián’s stay in the United States. Meanwhile, Cubans also protested for his return as his father continued pushing for media coverage of his demands for Elián to be brought back into his custody.
During a pre-dawn raid on April 22, armed federal agents stormed and seized Elián from the home of his relatives. Armed with complete tactical gear, including tear gas and gins, the agents used violence against any individuals who attempted to interfere with the raid. The Gonzalez family was unarmed when the agents raided the home, as a photograph was taken of an agent pointing an assault-styled gun at Elián. The photograph gained instant media attention and ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize.
Why This Story Resonates Today
The story of Elián Gonzalez’s seizure and removal from the United States ultimately represents a series of errors by the federal government, as well as incidents of excessive force used in unsubstantiated methods. This trend represents a continuous form of force and missteps still being witnessed in the government at the U.S.-Mexican border.
Under the Refugee Act of 1980, undocumented immigrants are legally allowed to seek asylum in the United States. However, because of repeated legislation, including Title 42 which denies immigrants seeking asylum the ability to enter the U.S., leaving them stuck in border cities in Mexico where they are housed in inhumane conditions, immigrants are ultimately denied their civil rights.
While the picture of federal images seizing Elián Gonzalez at gunpoint was taken over twenty years ago, the situation portrayed in the image has become normalized after the perpetuation of similar incidents. Immigrants are housed in unsanitary conditions as they wait for their day in court, where several recount disturbing incidents of harassment and assault perpetrated by ICE officers. Immigrants are being preyed upon in a broken system by officials that go unpunished for the actions they continue to commit.
While the U.S. Constitution pledges to protect the Due Process and Equal Protection of all individuals, not only citizens, because of failed legislation, policy, and efforts to protect these constitutional rights, the hopeful reformation of the immigration system that tore families apart in the 1990s as seen with Elián’s story and continues to do so today seems to be less evident in today’s society.