Maria Sacchetti, Boston Globe, March 24, 2009
President Barack Obama’s aunt, a Kenyan immigrant who ignited controversy last year for living in the United States illegally, has returned to her quiet apartment in a Boston public housing project to prepare for an April 1 deportation hearing that will be closed to the public.
Zeituni Onyango, a tall, frail-looking woman in her late 50s who walks with a cane, had fled Boston to stay with relatives in Cleveland last fall after media attention erupted over her case. She was spotted at Obama’s inaugural festivities in January and, according to neighbors, returned to Boston a few weeks ago for her third attempt to fight removal from the United States. She had been living in the country illegally since she was ordered deported in 2004.
Now the woman Obama called “Auntie Zeituni” and described as a kindly woman who kissed him on both cheeks and guided him during his trip to Kenya 20 years ago, is in a national spotlight, where her case is seen as a test of the Obama administration’s commitment to enforcing immigration laws. Critics, outraged that she is living in taxpayer-funded public housing while thousands of citizens and legal immigrants are on waiting lists, are scrutinizing the case for political favoritism. Others caution that she may have legitimate grounds to stay in the United States.
Onyango’s fate will play out behind closed doors before Judge Leonard Shapiro in Boston. Onyango’s lawyer, Margaret Wong of Ohio, successfully argued to reopen her case in December and have the proceedings closed to the public, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts.
Shapiro, an immigration judge since 1990, rejected 68 percent of asylum requests from 2002 to 2007, higher than the state and national averages, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Asylum seekers must show that they fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group.
She came to the United States in 2000 to find work and to seek a better life. Though she was ordered deported in 2004, she remained in the United States undetected until just before Election Day.
“She’s a very nice lady who wants to live her life,” said Ramos [Aida Ramos, a neighbor]. “Because she’s Obama’s aunt she’s getting all this attention she didn’t even want.