For Reno, the Decision Only Gets More Difficult

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Janet Reno is, to put it mildly, in something of a quandary. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to uphold its injunction forbidding Elian Gonzalez from leaving the U.S. caught the attorney general off guard and left her in the position she likes least in this case: having to make a decision. Where Reno had hoped the court would issue an order for the transfer of Elian to his father's custody, it refused to rule on the custody issue but upheld the right of the boy's Miami relatives to a day in court to argue their appeal for the right to claim asylum for Elian (and for the boy to stay in the U.S. while they do so). "The ruling leaves the immediate question of Elian's custody back in the hands of the Justice Department," says TIME Miami bureau chief Tim Padgett. "Reno is free to send marshals in to get the boy and reunite him with his father, but the court's decision may make it politically harder for her to order action because the Little Havana community believes it has won a big victory, and could become even more volatile if the feds try to remove Elian from Miami."

Despite the court's scolding of the INS for not interviewing the boy — and its recognition of Elian's signature on a document requesting asylum as signifying that the six-year-old had, indeed, signaled legal interests separate from those of his father — Reno still faces mounting pressure to make good on her vow to reunite the boy and his father immediately. That pressure will come, not least, from Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who came to the U.S. two weeks ago having been told that this was the only way to be reunited with his son, and has undertaken to remain on these shores pending the outcome of his relatives' appeal. But the only way to transfer Elian from his great-uncle to his father would appear to be by sending federal marshals through the throng of protesters around Lazaro Gonzalez's home in Little Havana, and that's an option for which Reno appears to have little stomach — an impression underscored by increasingly vocal and public criticism from inside the Justice Department of her handling of the case. An offer Wednesday by the Miami relatives to allow a meeting between Elian and his father was rejected by the father's lawyers unless it resulted in custody for their client.

If Reno does plan to order an early removal of Elian from Little Havana, Thursday is her window of opportunity ahead of the Easter weekend. "But experienced negotiators also know that you don't move when the adrenaline is pumping, and the demonstrators around Lazaro's house will be braced for confrontation Thursday," says TIME Washington correspondent Elaine Shannon. "The feds are more likely to wait for fatigue to take its toll, and that's more likely to take this standoff into next week." Even then, it may take Juan Miguel Gonzalez going to court to get an order of his own to spur Reno into action.