Barack Obama's aunt, a Kenyan woman who has been quietly living in public housing in Boston, is in the United States illegally after an immigration judge rejected her request for asylum four years ago, The Associated Press has learned.
Zeituni Onyango (zay-TUHN on-YANG-oh), referred to as "Aunti Zeituni" in the Democratic presidential candidate's memoir, was instructed to leave the United States by a U.S. immigration judge who denied her asylum request, a person familiar with the matter told the AP late Friday. This person spoke on condition of anonymity because no one was authorized to discuss Onyango's case.
Onyango, 56, is Obama's late father's half-sister, the Obama campaign has confirmed. She is not a relative whom Obama, 47, has discussed in campaign appearances and, unlike Obama's father and his maternal grandmother, is not someone who has been part of the public discussion about his personal life.
The Obama campaign declined to comment late Friday night.
Information about the deportation case was disclosed and confirmed by two separate sources, one a federal law enforcement official. The information they made available is known to officials in the federal government, but the AP could not establish whether anyone at a political level in the Bush administration or in the McCain campaign had been involved in its release.
Onyango's refusal to leave the country would represent an administrative, noncriminal violation of immigration law, meaning such cases are handled outside the criminal court system. Estimates vary, but many experts believe there are more than 10 million such immigrants in the U.S.
According to Federal Election Commission documents filed by the Obama campaign, Onyango has contributed $260 to Obama over a period of time. Under federal election law, only U.S. citizens or green-card holders are legally permitted to give money to campaigns. Onyango, who listed her employer as the Boston Housing Authority, gave in small increments to the Obama campaign. Her latest contribution was $5 on Sept. 19.
The AP could not immediately reach Onyango for comment. When a reporter went to her home Friday night, no one answered the door. A neighbor said she was often not home on the weekend. Onyango did not immediately return telephone and written messages left at her home. It was unclear why her request for asylum was rejected in 2004.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Kelly Nantel, said the government does not comment on an individual's citizenship status or immigration case.
Onyango's case — coming to light just days before the presidential election — led to an unusual nationwide directive within Immigrations and Customs Enforcement requiring that any deportations before Tuesday's election be approved at least at the level of the agency's regional directors, the U.S. law enforcement official told the AP.
The unusual directive suggests that the administration is sensitive to the political implications of Onyango's case coming to light so close to the election.
The East African nation has been fractured in violence in recent years, including a period of two months of bloodshed after December 2007 that killed 1,500 people.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said Saturday that he had no idea how Onyango might have qualified for public housing with a standing deportation order. He said he's not involved in the operations of the agency, even though he appoints the head, because it runs mainly on federal and state dollars.
William McGonagle, deputy director of the Boston Housing Authority, said when contacted: "I know nothing about it and I've got no comment."