U.S. court grants asylum to Obama’s African aunt

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 18, 2010

CLEVELAND (AP) — A U.S. immigration court has granted asylum to President Obama’s African aunt, allowing her to stay in the country and setting her on the road to citizenship after years of legal wrangling, her attorneys announced Monday.

The decision was made by a judge in U.S. Immigration Court in Boston and mailed out Friday. It comes three months after Kenya native Zeituni Onyango, the half-sister of Obama’s late father, testified at a closed hearing in Boston.

People who seek asylum must show that they face persecution in their homeland on the basis of religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.

Email newsletter signup

The basis for Onyango’s asylum request was never made public, but her lawyer Margaret Wong said last year that Onyango first applied for asylum ‘‘due to violence in Kenya.’’ The East African nation is fractured by cycles of electoral violence every five years.

Medical issues also could have played a role. In a November interview with The Associated Press, Onyango said she was disabled and was learning to walk again after being paralyzed from Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder. At her hearing in Boston earlier this year, she arrived in a wheelchair and two doctors testified in support of her case.

Her lawyers would not comment on Onyango’s medical troubles.

‘‘She doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her,’’ said Scott Bratton, another of her attorneys.

Onyango’s efforts to win asylum have lasted more than a decade, Wong said.

‘‘She was ecstatic,’’ Wong said at a news conference in Cleveland on Monday, describing Onyango’s reaction to the news. ‘‘She was very, very happy.’’

Wong said the White House was not informed of the ruling. Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro said Monday that the White House had no involvement in the case at any point in the process.

Onyango didn’t immediately respond to telephone messages left by The Associated Press and didn’t answer her door in Boston. Two police cars were stationed outside her apartment building trying to keep reporters away.

‘‘She really does give people hope,’’ Wong said. ‘‘Because if someone like her who was in the spotlight, in the limelight — and it was all negative — could make it in our land of the law, I think other people could, too.’’

Onyango will now apply for a work permit, which would provide some documentation that she is permitted to stay in the country and allow her to travel again, Wong said. A year from now, she will be eligible to apply for a green card, which is given to people who are granted legal permanent residency in the U.S., Wong said. Five years after receving her green card, she can apply to become a U.S. citizen.

‘‘There are hundreds and thousands of people like her who really need help to stay here,’’ Wong said. ‘‘When they first come to this country, they don’t know what they are doing.’’

The media’s portrayal of Onyango in recent years has not been entirely fair, Wong said.

‘‘She may not be photogenic, but she’s very much a smart, thoughtful, regal woman,’’ Wong said.

Onyango initially came to the U.S. in 2000 just for a visit, Wong said. Her first request for political asylum in 2002 was rejected, and she was ordered deported in 2004. But she didn’t leave the country and continued to live in public housing in Boston.

Onyango’s status as an illegal immigrant was revealed just days before Obama was elected in November 2008. Obama said he did not know his aunt was living here illegally and believes laws covering the situation should be followed. To escape the media attention, Onyango came to Cleveland for a couple of months in 2008, where she has many friends in the city’s Kenyan community, Wong said. At that time, a family member in Cleveland contacted Wong.

A judge later agreed to suspend her deportation order and reopen her asylum case.

Wong has said that Obama wasn’t involved in the Boston hearing. The White House also said it was not helping Onyango with legal fees.

In his memoir, ‘‘Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,’’ Obama affectionately referred to Onyango as ‘‘Auntie Zeituni’’ and described meeting her during his 1988 trip to Kenya.

Onyango helped care for the president’s half brothers and sister while living with Barack Obama Sr. in Kenya.