Battle Over Elian Heats Up As Justice Department Custody Transfer Deadline Comes And Goes

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WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: When the day began, there were signs the custody battle over Elian Gonzalez would soon be over. The boy was supposed to be flown to Washington to be with his father. That reunion is now on hold. The boy's relatives, seemingly with the backing of Miami's entire Cuban-American community, defied the U.S. government order. The picture was clouded even further shortly after three this afternoon, when a federal appeals court blocked the boy from leaving the country. That move also raises questions about who has legal custody of the 6-year-old.

CNN Miami bureau chief John Zarrella takes us through a tense 24 hours.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: No deal. Wednesday night Attorney General Janet Reno left the Miami Beach home of Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin empty-handed; the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez held firm -- the boy would not be turned over.

LAZARO GONZALEZ, ELIAN'S GREAT UNCLE (through translator): There's no negotiating with Janet Reno in her whim to returning the child to the father.

ZARRELLA: A government deadline, 2:00 p.m. Thursday, is imposed. During the overnight hours, the family produces a tape. On it, Elian says he does not want to go back to Cuba. It's not clear who was in the room with the boy or whether he was coached.

By day break Thursday, events are moving rapidly. What went wrong the night before?

SISTER JEANNE O'LAUGHLIN, PRESIDENT, BARRY UNIVERSITY: I think had the father been present, the results would be much different for today.

ZARRELLA: At Opa-Locka Airport, a possible departure site for the boy, police erect barricades for crowd control. In Little Havana, the barricades around Lazaro Gonzalez' home are reinforced. The deadline is just hours away. The crowd of protesters grows by the minute.

At noon, the attorney general defuses the immediate tension. There's still time to work things out, she says. Elian will not be taken by force. For now.

JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We have the authority to take action, but responsible authority means not only being able to take action, but knowing when and how to take that action.

ZARRELLA: Within minutes, the president backs his attorney general.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I do believe that it is our responsibility to uphold the law, and we're doing our best to do that.

ZARRELLA: Local Cuban-American mayor's urge calm. They urge help in stopping rumors.

MAYOR ALEX PENELAS, MIAMI, FLORIDA: We need your help in getting the word out to the community, as Mayor Carollo said, and repeat what Janet Reno has said: Federal marshals are not coming to this home at 2:00 today.

ZARRELLA: At 2:00 p.m., the deadline passes -- no federal action. The family says it wants to meet with Elian's father, Juan Miguel, in Miami, with no preconditions.

Singer-entertainer Gloria Estefan offered the father an olive branch.

GLORIA ESTEFAN, ENTERTAINER: And as the Cuban community, we stand strong in peace and offer him a peaceful and respectful welcome to Miami to come and retrieve his son.

ZARRELLA: Marisleysis, Elian's cousin, who was released from a hospital Wednesday, starts passing out drinks to the protesters. As she and other family members worked the crowd, a Florida court rules it has no jurisdiction.

In Washington, the attorney for Elian's father blasts the Miami relatives.

GREGORY CRAIG, ATTY. FOR JUAN GONZALEZ: Today, Lazaro Gonzalez broke the law. Let the record be absolutely clear on this point: Lazaro Gonzalez and those who assist him now are in violation not only of federal law, but also of state law.

ZARRELLA: But in Atlanta, a federal appeals court takes control for the moment. The court issues a temporary stay, effectively keeping Elian in the U.S. until it reviews a motion filed by the family. The crowd, now up to 1,500, cheers the news.

John Zarrella, CNN, Miami.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Elian Gonzalez' Miami relatives say they released that tape of him so that his feelings on the issue could be heard. His father's attorney called the tape another instance of exploitation. Now that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered Elian to remain in the United States, what are the next steps for the father, the U.S. government and the Gonzalez family in Miami?

Here's CNN Justice correspondent Pierre Thomas

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Coming on the brink of potentially decisive action to remove Elian from his Miami relatives, the appeals court's order has put any Justice Department enforcement on hold. The court's review could take several days, and whatever decision it makes is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

JONATHAN TURLEY, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: The Justice Department is on the verge of taking this child in the face of opposition from family in Miami. This order allows the Justice Department to hold back and to once again see if the courts can induce the family to hand Elian over.

THOMAS: After the Miami family defied the attorney general's deadline to turn Elian over, the lawyer for Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the boy's father, voiced frustration.

CRAIG: Respect for the rule of law requires the enforcement of the law. The law must be respected, and the attorney general must enforce the law.

THOMAS: CNN has learned Justice Department officials are reviewing tactical plans to retrieve the child from Little Havana should the family continue to refuse to turn over the boy. According to law enforcement sources, the plan could involve Immigration and Naturalization Service agents and U.S. Marshals. Those agents would likely dress in suits, not law enforcement uniforms or fatigues. They would not enter the home guns drawn. The goal: Secure the child without appearing proceed provocative or heavyhanded. The team would rely heavily on Miami Police for crowd control.

RENO: I am prepared to enforce the law. But I want to be clear that if we are compelled to enforce our order, we intend to do so in a reasonable, measured way.

THOMAS (on camera): With court battles ongoing, Janet Reno, who has been reluctant to order the boy removed, has more time to find a way out.

Pierre Thomas CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We're now joined by CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren.

Greta, walk us through this legal process a little bit. How long can this go on , the legal side of this? GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Let me tell you, Wolf, the one thing that always rubs lawyers the wrong way, is we have filing deadlines. Judges don't have deadlines to make decisions. What happens today is there's a temporary stay until 9:30 tomorrow morning, when the government must respond to the issue of whether a temporary stay should be granted. The judges can then take as long as they want to decide whether or not to give a permanent stay pending the resolution of the appeal issue. The appeal issue goes back to the trial court issue as to whether or not the attorney general is the one who makes the decision whether the child should go or not go.

So it could take -- the court of appeals could decide tomorrow. They could decide at 9:45, 10:45, they could decide Monday, or they could sit on it for two weeks. The judges don't have deadlines. Once the judges issue their order, though, the question is, will the losing side go to the United States Supreme Court. And they have the option to go to the United States Supreme Court and say, look, please consider our issue whether or not to grant a stay, whether to postpone the ruling of the child to another country, pending resolution of the appeal, and the Supreme Court can say yes we would like to hear it, or they could issue an order, and lickety-split, in two seconds, and say, no, that's the end of it, we're not going to hear it, and then there won't be a stay.

BLITZER: So there's basically no way predicting whether this could be resolved legally tomorrow, Monday, or Tuesday or a month from now?

VAN SUSTEREN: Right, and the thing is there are two tracks. One is try to postpone the execution of the trial court judge order, which is that the attorney general is the one who makes the decision. The other issue is, does she have the authority? That's what the appeal is about, is whether or not she has the authority. The trial court said she did. The U.S. court of appeals has yet to rule on that. But in the meantime, that trial court decision was alive and well until the stay was issued today. Now it's not alive and well as it extends to the issue whether or not that child can leave the country.

But what's interesting about the order, it does not say the attorney general can't go in and get physical custody of the child. It only says the child can't leave the country.

BLITZER: But presumably they're reluctant to go in -- a spectacle like that -- to go into that house and take the boy out, even if it's in sort of relatively mild terms, that that crowd out there would not be happy about that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Oh politically, it would be very bad. I mean, you don't want -- the federal government doesn't want to look like it's going in like gangbusters after the child, but remember, the father is here. If the child went to get the father, perhaps with the marshals, it might be a different story.

BLITZER: OK, Greta Van Susteren, our legal analysts, the co-host of "BURDEN OF PROOF," thanks for joining us.

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