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Elian Gonzalez is "not a pawn" but a human being who ought to be sent home to his father and grandparents in Cuba, Rep. John J. LaFalce said Tuesday after meeting with the boy's grandmothers.

The Town of Tonawanda Democrat met with the grandmothers, Raquel Rodriguez and Mariela Quintana, in storm-bound Washington in the office of Rep. Jose Serrano, D-New York City.

Afterward, LaFalce said Democrats as well as Republicans are "playing to anti-Cuban sentiment. But that is wrong. Political pandering does a disservice to Elian, his immediate family and to the rights of parents and grandparents, whoever and wherever they may be."

Congressional aides said the sentiment in New York is overwhelmingly in favor of returning the refugee to his father. In Florida, though, sentiment in communities of Cuban emigrees is so strongly anti-Castro that the Clinton administration's efforts to send Elian back could cost the Democratic presidential candidate the state in November.

LaFalce said the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service made the correct judgment in choosing to return Elian to his "most immediate family."

LaFalce strongly backed President Clinton, who weeks ago said the fate of the 6-year-old should be left to competent courts and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

LaFalce said said Elian should be returned "to a loving father who wants him, a loving stepmother who wants him and grandparents who want him."

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