Untold thousands of illegal immigrants live in public housing at a time when hundreds of thousands of citizens and legal residents are stuck waiting years for a spot.
Illegal immigrants make up a tiny portion of the 7.1 million people in federal housing, according to government statistics. But authorities may be unaware of thousands more, and critics say no illegal immigrant should get housing benefits.
The issue made headlines in November with news that Zeituni Onyango, an aunt of President-elect Barack Obama, was living in Boston public housing while in the country illegally.
The federal government, which funds the lion’s share of the nation’s public housing, requires only that illegal immigrants share a home with at least one family member who is in the country legally and pay their share of the rent.
While there are no hard numbers on illegal immigrants in public housing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that 29,570 people—0.4 percent of all those in federally funded housing—are “ineligible noncitizens.” Some may be on temporary visas, such as highly educated workers or college students, but many are believed to be illegal immigrants.
The HUD tally does not offer a full picture of how many illegal immigrants are in public housing.
It doesn’t include housing funded by state and local governments, where eligibility requirements vary. Massachusetts, where Obama’s aunt occupied one of about 50,000 state-funded units, doesn’t ask immigration status under a 1977 federal consent decree in a class-action lawsuit that prohibits the state from denying the benefit to illegal immigrants.
Some prospective tenants and advocates of immigration restrictions are angry about U.S. citizens waiting for housing aid that some number of illegal immigrants are enjoying.
New York City has about 260,000 people in line for housing aid. Chicago recently opened its waiting list for the first time in about 10 years and collected 259,000 names in four weeks for 40,000 slots.
“As long as that waiting list includes American citizens or legal immigrants, there’s no reason an illegal alien should occupy any of that housing,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, a group that supports curbs on immigration.
In San Diego, applicants are told they can expect to wait five to seven years.
Onyango, the half-sister of Obama’s late father, applied for public housing in 2002 while she was in the country legally seeking asylum from her native Kenya, said Lydia Agro, spokeswoman for the Boston Housing Authority, which has a waiting list of nearly 20,000 people.
Onyango moved into federally funded housing in 2003 and stayed there after 2004, when, The Associated Press learned, an immigration judge denied her asylum application and ordered her to leave the country.
Onyango transferred to an apartment funded only by the state, which cannot ask about immigration status under the court order. In November, her attorney said she was staying with relatives in Cleveland and would fight her deportation order.