WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno today upheld a decision giving custody of Elian Gonzalez to his Cuban father and said any challenge to that ruling must come in federal rather than state court.
To allow the 6-year-old boy's Florida relatives time to challenge that decision, Reno wrote to their lawyers that the government is postponing its Friday deadline for turning him over for return to Cuba. She did not give a new deadline or say what steps the federal government might take next to enforce its decision.
Reno brushed aside a state court ruling Monday that the boy must remain in the United State until a March 6 hearing. She said the state court order ''has no force or effect'' on the Immigration and Naturalization Service's decision in the case.
''The question of who may speak for a 6-year-old child in applying for admission or asylum is a matter of federal immigration law,'' Reno wrote. The question of who speaks for the boy ''remains one of federal, not state, law.''
Lawyers for the family visited Reno here last week to press their argument that she overrule the INS decision. Weighing their arguments, Reno wrote, ''I am not currently aware of any basis for reversing ... (that) decision.''
Indeed, Reno added that the federal ruling ''may be challenged, if at all, only in federal court. We are prepared to litigate in that forum.''
Reno wrote that INS had decided that its Jan. 14 deadline for turning the boy over for return to Cuba ''should be extended to accommodate any federal court proceedings.''
Meanwhile, the boy expressed a desire to return to Cuba, according to a tape made by WPLG, a television station in Miami.
Elian was wrestling with a friend outside Tuesday as a film crew photographed him.
As a plane flew overhead, the friend exclaimed, in Spanish, ''Look, a plane, a plane!''
Gonzalez responded in Spanish: ''A plane! A plane! I want you to take me back to Cuba.''
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