The White House is promising to reconsider a new rule requiring high-level approval before federal immigration agents can arrest fugitives. The Bush administration quietly imposed the unusual directive days before the election of Barack Obama, whose aunt has been living in the United States illegally.
The directive from the Homeland Security Department came amid concerns that such arrests might generate “negative media or congressional interest,” according to a newly disclosed federal document obtained by The Associated Press.
The directive makes clear that U.S. officials worried about possible election implications of arresting Zeituni Onyango, the half-sister of Obama’s late father, who at the time was living in public housing in Boston. She is now believed to be living in Cleveland.
A copy of the directive, “Fugitive Case File Vetting Prior to Arrest,” was released to the AP just over two months after it was requested under the Freedom of Information Act. It does not mention President Obama or any members of his extended family.
The directive is still in place, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Kelly Nantel told the AP. It originally was distributed Oct. 31 by e-mail to immigration officers by an assistant director at the agency. Obama was elected president five days later. Nantel said the directive called for close supervision over any cases that could be high profile. She said it was not specific to Obama’s relatives.
Obama’s aunt was instructed to leave the country four years ago by an immigration judge who rejected her request for asylum from her native Kenya. The East African nation has been fractured by violence in recent years, including a period of two months of bloodshed after December 2007 that killed 1,500 people.
Despite the deportation order, Onyango traveled to Washington last week for her nephew’s inauguration. News organizations observed her attending an inaugural ball at Washington’s Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, a historic luxury hotel, with her immigration lawyer, Margaret Wong.
Rogers said he met Onyango once, in November, and described her as a private, spiritual woman who remains strong despite legal, medical and financial difficulties.
“She’s had a hard life but is not feeling sorry for herself,” Rogers said. “She’s strong for a woman who’s been beaten up like she has by life.” Of Obama, he said: “She’s very proud of her nephew.”
The government’s Oct. 31 directive was “effective immediately and until further notice,” and required that immigration agents obtain approval from ICE field office directors or deputy directors before arresting fugitives. An approval would depend on an internal review that would consider, among other issues, “any potential for negative media or congressional interest.”
Nantel said there was never any direction that officials should not take action on an enforcement issue. It clarified that potentially high-profile cases needed to be coordinated with the agency’s senior officials.
The Homeland Security Department censored parts of the document before turning it over to the AP, citing privacy and law enforcement reasons for withholding some of the information, including the name of the person who sent the e-mail. It also blacked out the names of recipients of the directive, making it impossible to determine whether it was sent to anyone outside the department or outside government.
Obama’s campaign said in October it was returning $260 that Onyango had contributed in small increments to Obama’s presidential bid over several months. Federal election law prohibits most foreigners from making political donations. Onyango listed her employer as the Boston Housing Authority and last gave $5 on Sept. 19.