Obama says he wasn't aware of aunt's immigration status

By Scott Helman and Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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Aides to Senator Barack Obama confirmed yesterday that the Illinois senator has had some contact with his aunt in Boston in recent years, but they said he was not aware that she was reportedly in the country illegally.

The Associated Press reported that Obama's 56-year-old aunt, Zeituni Onyango, who has been living in a South Boston public housing complex, was told to leave the country four years ago by an immigration judge who rejected her request for political asylum from Kenya. Onyango, the half-sister of Obama's late father, could not be reached for comment and did not appear to be at home yesterday.

Aides said Obama was not aware of her apparent immigration status and was not involved in her asylum case. "Senator Obama has no knowledge of her status but obviously believes that any and all appropriate laws be followed," the campaign said in a statement.

Onyango had contributed $260 to Obama's presidential bid in small installments, but with federal law prohibiting foreigners from contributing to political candidates, his campaign said it would return the money.

Obama had limited contact with his late father, Barack Obama Sr., and much of his family. Obama first met his father's relatives on a trip to Africa 20 years ago, which he describes in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams From My Father." In the book he calls her "Auntie Zeituni."

Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the AP report that Obama had seen Onyango on a few occasions since, including a trip to Kenya with his wife, Michelle, and a trip she took to Chicago on a tourist visa - at Obama's invitation - about nine years ago. Onyango also attended Obama's swearing-in after he was elected to the US Senate in 2004. Obama last heard from her about two years ago, when she called to say she was in Boston, according to his campaign.

The Boston Housing Authority, which oversees subsidized housing developments in the city, said yesterday that residents who apply for federally funded housing must prove their legal citizenship or residency, but those applying for state-funded public housing do not.

When Onyango applied in 2002 for public housing, her asylum request was pending so she was an eligible noncitizen, said Bill McGonagle, deputy director of the housing authority.

The authority was not notified by the Department of Homeland Security that her asylum request had been rejected, and does not track immigration status on its own, McGonagle said. Onyango, who moved into the federally subsidized Old Colony complex in South Boston in 2003, moved to the West Broadway complex this year after requesting a transfer for medical reasons.

Because West Broadway is state-funded, McGonagle said, her immigration status may not matter. "I'm not sure this will, or should, affect her tenancy," he said. "I don't believe it is the housing authority's responsibility to enforce federal immigration laws."

A spokesman for state Department of Housing and Community Development said last night that as a result of 1977 federal consent decree, the state cannot deny state-subsidized public housing to illegal immigrants.

The AP said the deportation case was confirmed by two sources, including a federal law enforcement official, but said it could not establish whether there was any political motivation involved in disclosing the information. Democrat John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter yesterday to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff asking him to investigate the leak.

The AP also reported that Onyango's case had prompted an unusual directive within US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement requiring that any deportations before Election Day be approved at least at the level of the agency's regional directors.

"I think people are suspicious about stories that surface in the last 72 hours of a national campaign," said Obama's chief campaign strategist David Axelrod.

John McCain's senior adviser, Mark Salter, declined to comment, telling reporters "it's a family matter."

Onyango, one of several children of Obama's grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, has lived in the South Boston complex for five years. In "Dreams From My Father," Obama recalled that she was the first person to greet him when he stepped off a plane for the first time in Kenya.

" 'Welcome home,' Zeituni said, kissing me on both cheeks," Obama wrote.

Onyango, who is paid a small stipend for working as a health advocate in her housing complex, has largely avoided the media since her whereabouts were first reported by the Times of London on Wednesday. In a phone interview Wednesday night with the Globe, Onyango suggested she wanted to lay low as her nephew tried to win the presidency.

"We'll talk after the election," she said.

Scott Helman reported from Henderson, Nev., and Eric Moskowitz reported from Boston.

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