Where He Belongs: Can Elian Decide for Himself?

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The battle over Elian Gonzalez keeps stretching the boundaries of legal precedent. Thursday, a federal judge in Miami heard oral arguments in a case brought by Elian's great-uncle against the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Lazaro Gonzalez claims his six-year-old nephew is capable of applying for asylum in his own right — that neither Elian's father nor the INS has the right to send the boy back to Cuba. Elian was rescued from an inner tube in November after his mother drowned at sea in an ill-fated attempt to reach Miami, and his father, who remained in Cuba, has made repeated pleas for his son to be returned.

Elian's relatives in the U.S. are not eager to oblige the father's wishes, and on first reading, immigration law seems to support their cause: According to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, any Cuban who touches U.S. soil is entitled to apply for political asylum. There are no overt age restrictions on the law, only a supposition of comprehension. So the crux of the debate is whittled down to one question: Can a six-year-old understand what the word "asylum" truly means?

Apparently, this judge thinks it's possible. He accepted an argument from Elian's Miami relatives that the boy filled out his application with a full comprehension of its ramifications. Legal analysts watching the case agree that this judge's acceptance of the family's claim that Elian is intellectually capable of understanding what it means to apply for asylum stretches the boundaries of credulity. The judge is not expected to render his decision until next week, says TIME Miami bureau chief Tim Padgett, but even when the ruling comes down, this story will be far from over, given the fierce emotion sparked by Elian's case. "Both sides will appeal any decision that's made against them," says Padgett. "And let's say the case is eventually resolved, and Elian is ordered to return to Cuba. How will they get him out of Miami without the possibility of violent protest?"