Back In Boston, Obama’s Aunt Fighting Deportation

Back in Boston, Obama's aunt fighting deportation
President Obama's aunt was living on Flaherty Way in South Boston when her case drew scrutiny in the fall. (Evan Richman/ Globe Staff/ 2008)

By Maria Sacchetti
The Boston Globe, March 24, 2009

President Barack Obama's aunt, a Kenyan immigrant who ignited controversy last year for living in the United States illegally, has returned to her quiet apartment in a Boston public housing project to prepare for an April 1 deportation hearing that will be closed to the public.

Zeituni Onyango, a tall, frail-looking woman in her late 50s who walks with a cane, had fled Boston to stay with relatives in Cleveland last fall after media attention erupted over her case. She was spotted at Obama's inaugural festivities in January and, according to neighbors, returned to Boston a few weeks ago for her third attempt to fight removal from the United States. She had been living in the country illegally since she was ordered deported in 2004.

Now the woman Obama called 'Auntie Zeituni' and described as a kindly woman who kissed him on both cheeks and guided him during his trip to Kenya 20 years ago, is in a national spotlight, where her case is seen as a test of the Obama administration's commitment to enforcing immigration laws. Critics, outraged that she is living in taxpayer-funded public housing while thousands of citizens and legal immigrants are on waiting lists, are scrutinizing the case for political favoritism. Others caution that she may have legitimate grounds to stay in the United States.

'The case is unusual in American history because it's a relative of the president involved in immigration matters,' said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. 'It really does present the White House with an opportunity or a minefield. If they follow through on a decision that she should go home, that would actually raise the president's credibility enormously on immigration enforcement.'

Obama has said that he has not had any involvement in the case and that it should run its ordinary course, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said.

Onyango's fate will play out behind closed doors before Judge Leonard Shapiro in Boston. Onyango's lawyer, Margaret Wong of Ohio, successfully argued to reopen her case in December and have the proceedings closed to the public, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts.

Onyango declined two requests for interviews in recent days, and told a reporter to stop wasting her time.

'I'm not happy,' Onyango said, bundled up in a parka against the spring chill as she went to pick up her mail.

Wong has not responded to repeated requests for comment. But her spokesman told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in January that Onyango would present new evidence to back an asylum claim. Onyango has lost several attempts to fight deportation, said immigration court spokeswoman Elaine Komis. In 2003, a judge ordered her to leave the country, and she lost on appeal. She tried again, but an immigration judge ordered her deported in October 2004. Komis would not confirm whether Onyango had sought asylum before now because, she said, asylum cases are confidential.

Shapiro, an immigration judge since 1990, rejected 68 percent of asylum requests from 2002 to 2007, higher than the state and national averages, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Asylum seekers must show that they fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group.

Still, immigration lawyers said she has a chance because she managed to get a hearing.

Onyango is a half-sister of the president's late father, Barack Obama Sr., who was absent most of Obama's life and who died in a car accident in 1982. The president met his aunt during a trip to Kenya in 1988 and included her in his 1995 memoir, 'Dreams from My Father,' but has said he was unaware of her immigration issues.

Onyango, then a computer programmer, served as a translator, storyteller, and guide during his Kenya trip. She shared stories about his father's struggles and her own. She said Obama's father helped her get out of an abusive marriage when she was jobless and had no money.

She came to the United States in 2000 to find work and to seek a better life. Though she was ordered deported in 2004, she remained in the United States undetected until just before Election Day.

Aida Ramos, a neighbor, said Onyango is a humble, independent woman who suffers from back problems and is upset about the media attention over her case. She said Onyango quietly helps her neighbors, from counseling them on child-rearing to health issues.

'She's a very nice lady who wants to live her life,' said Ramos. 'Because she's Obama's aunt she's getting all this attention she didn't even want.'