BHA takes heat for housing Obama's aunt
By Maria Sacchetti
Boston Globe Staff
November 4, 2008
Reports that Senator Barack Obama's aunt is an illegal immigrant living in Boston public housing sparked outrage yesterday at a time when nearly 20,000 people are on waiting lists for subsidized housing in the city.
The news lit up talk radio, stirred debate on blogs, and led to a new call for government officials to do a better job screening for illegal immigrants.
“This is a really lousy deal for Massachusetts taxpayers and for other people in Massachusetts who might be able to qualify for a public subsidy but can't get one,” said Jessica Vaughan, senior policy analyst of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, though she is based in Franklin, Mass. “To be fair to legal residents and citizens, those people in need should be the priority. Public housing is a limited service.”
Zeituni Onyango, the 56-year-old half-sister of Obama's late father whom Obama saw sporadically throughout the years, first applied for public housing in 2002 while she was a legal resident seeking asylum from her native Kenya.
But she remained in federal public housing after an immigration judge ordered her deported four years ago, according to the Associated Press. Residents of federal public housing must prove that they are here legally, but their status is checked only when they first apply, housing authority officials said.
In addition, Boston Housing Authority officials confirmed yesterday that the agency used federal funds to pay Onyango more than $1,500 last year when she worked as a resident health advocate to educate people in the community about asthma. She worked from January to early July for $65 a week.
Bill McGonagle, deputy director of the housing authority, said the agency obeyed federal law in housing and hiring Onyango. He said the Department of Homeland Security never informed the authority that Onyango was facing deportation.
However, he did not know whether the authority also checked her legal status against a federal database when it hired her last year.
“As far as we knew she was legal, ” he said. “We did all of the appropriate checks and followed all of the appropriate rules and regulations.”
Her case underscores the contradictory rules governing public housing in Massachusetts.
Applicants for federal public housing – which make up 75 percent of Boston's housing developments – have since 1995 had to provide documents proving that they are here legally. Their information is verified with a federal database.
Onyango would have had to pass that test before she moved in 2003 into the federally funded Old Colony complex in South Boston. She has since had back surgery and has trouble walking, McGonagle said, so this year she transferred to a more accessible apartment in the West Broadway complex, which is funded only by the state.
State officials say a 1977 federal consent decree prohibits them from denying public housing to illegal immigrants. The decree stemmed from a class-action lawsuit in Waltham.
Onyango could not be reached yesterday for comment, and has said she would not be available until after today's election.
Advocates for immigrants expressed outrage that anonymous sources leaked Onyango's story to the media. Although it probably was intended to harm Obama on the eve of the presidential election, they said, publicizing his aunt's personal information could put her in danger. If she filed an asylum case, she was in fear of returning to her homeland, they said.
Cases are sometimes denied on legal technicalities, they said, and Onyango might have been pursuing other avenues to stay in the United States.
“It's just so outrageous that any information about her would be revealed,” said Joan Friedland, a lawyer and immigration policy director at the National Immigration Law Center in Washington. “What is clear is that revealing information about somebody who's applied for asylum has the potential for putting them in peril.” Eva Millona, the new executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said it is unclear if Onyango is here illegally.
“Even though an immigration judge makes a decision, the fear doesn't go away,” she said. “There are other forms of relief the person can apply for.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has asked its inspector general and office of professional responsibility to investigate the leak, said spokeswoman Kelly Nantel. It is the policy of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees customs, to keep such cases confidential, she said.
Maria Sacchetti can be reached at email@example.com.