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CONGRESSIONAL CHILDNAPPING

As impossible as it seems, Congress has a chance to make the sad saga of Elian Gonzalez even more political than it already has become.

The Republican effort to grant the 6-year-old Cuban boy U.S. citizenship -- and to dump that bill on President Clinton's desk in the middle of election season -- is as blatantly political as anything the boy's distant relatives in Miami have conjured up.

It's probably good that little Elian is too young to understand how he's being used like this in the name of "democracy," otherwise it might give him second thoughts about the very concept being bandied about in his name.

Elian belongs at home with his father, grandparents, schoolmates and others who have established relationships with the boy and who can help him readjust after the traumatic loss of his mother at sea. The effort by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and others to hold him hostage through legislation and subpoenas amounts to little more than congressional childnapping.

In catering to Florida's vocal anti-Castro community, members of Congress are responding to the fact that the small band of Castro haters will be more politically active and more likely to vote on that single issue than the vast majority of Americans who believe Elian should return home.

That's what can happen when immigration policy is turned into a question of "who has the most photogenic face" or the most powerful supporters, says James Lindsay, a Brookings Institution foreign policy and immigration expert.

If Congress responds to that by granting Elian citizenship, the case turns into a custody dispute rather than the straightforward immigration matter that it actually is. That could take it out of federal court and into state court, where the same political pressures that already overwhelmed one Florida judge, members of Congress -- and the presidential candidates -- would be brought to bear.

It also could lead Cuban President Fidel Castro to declare the United States in violation of the 1995 immigration agreement that stemmed the flow of refugees by having Washington return those who are found at sea -- as Elian was. If he no longer felt bound by that agreement, Lindsay notes, Castro could unleash another torrent of refugees right in the middle of the U.S. election.

That would be something the Clinton administration -- especially Vice President Gore -- would shudder at, but which Republicans might welcome.

All of that, of course, has little to do with what's best for Elian. Immigration officials already have determined that the boy has a bond with his father. He also is close to his maternal and paternal grandparents in Cuba. He needs them now more than ever.

Denying him that would be to abuse both the legislative process and a 6-year-old to score political points. Even Congress shouldn't be that cynical.

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