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INS Tried to Hide Elian Case Memo, Group Says

April 11, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — An internal Immigration and Naturalization Service memo surfaced Wednesday indicating that the besieged agency may have ignored evidence supporting the asylum request of Elian Gonzalez--the 6-year-old shipwreck survivor who was returned to Cuba after months of political and legal wrangling.

A handwritten notation on the document released by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, says that then-INS Commissioner Doris Meissner ordered the memo destroyed the next day and decreed further deliberations about the case not be put into writing.

Arguments over what to do about the Cuban youngster--whose mother and 10 others died when their boat capsized during the journey from Cuba to the United States in 1999--violently polarized the people of Miami.

For many Cuban Americans, the memo has bolstered suspicions that Elian was sacrificed for the sake of expediency. "The Clinton administration was horrified of another refugee crisis, and they did everything possible to accommodate Havana," said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba. "This is an example."

Judicial Watch on Wednesday accused Meissner of obstruction of justice and equated her with Arthur Andersen--the accounting firm that carried out large-scale shredding of paperwork related to the collapse of Enron.

The INS memorandum, dated Dec. 29, 1999, "evidences criminal activity by a high-level government official," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. "You're not allowed to destroy this type of document."

Meissner, who now works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, did not return a call for comment.

A copy of the memo somehow survived in the form of an e-mail and was released by Judicial Watch in Miami. The group is representing INS special agent Rick Ramirez, who has accused his agency and the Justice Department of anti-Latino bias in dealing with Elian.

The memo, written by INS attorney Rebeca Sanchez Roig, summarized a discussion by Meissner and other INS officials about the Elian case. It noted that Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, apparently had applied at one time for a U.S. visa.

When Elian was rescued at sea on Thanksgiving Day 1999 and temporarily placed with Miami relatives, the government of Fidel Castro began a noisy campaign to secure his return. His father joined in the chorus, but the INS memo mentioned allegations that he was acting under Cuban government pressure.

If coercion were involved, the memo said, the INS could "potentially accept" the asylum application filed on Elian's behalf by Miami-based relatives.

Patricia Mancha, an INS spokeswoman in Miami, said she would not comment on the memo because of the ongoing litigation involving Ramirez. Some INS officials, however, said that internal documents are destroyed all the time and that the practice wasn't necessarily illegal.

INS officials also said Wednesday that they could find no record that Juan Miguel Gonzalez had ever sought a U.S. visa.

On. Jan. 5, 2000, a week after the memo was written, Meissner announced she had decided to return Elian to his father. Now 8, the boy lives in Cardenas, Cuba.

If the INS "had any indication that the father had applied for a visa in the lottery, they should have pursued it and determined what the facts were," said Jose Garcia Pedrosa, a lawyer who represented Elian's Miami relatives. "They didn't."

The INS has been under intense criticism for admitting the Sept. 11 hijackers to the United States, losing track of other foreigners targeted for deportation and failing to control an illegal immigration population that has ballooned to 8 million. On Wednesday, a House committee approved a bill that calls for dissolving the agency and dividing its duties into two--immigration enforcement and citizenship services.

"If news reports are accurate, that directive to withhold documents is extremely troubling," said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney who worked on behalf of Elian's relatives. "It confirms the concerns of many that a dramatic overhaul is needed at all levels of the agency if commands like these could come from the top."

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Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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