The door to the public housing complex in South Boston where Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's aunt Zeituni Onyango reportedly lives is seen Thursday, Oct. 30, 2008
Elise Amendola / AP Enlarge
BOSTON -- President-elect Barack Obama's aunt intends to fight a deportation order and hopes to remain in the United States, her immigration lawyer said Friday.
The Associated Press found that Zeituni Onyango, 56, is staying with relatives in Cleveland after fleeing her public housing apartment in Boston. She had been living there five years.
Onyango, who is Obama's father's half-sister, was ordered to leave the country in 2004 by an immigration judge who rejected her request for asylum from her native Kenya.
Cleveland attorney Margaret Wong told the AP on Friday she is exploring legal options and may file a motion to reopen Onyango's case or file an appeal for her to stay on humanitarian grounds. She would not discuss Onyango's reasons for seeking asylum in the United States.
"She will do whatever she can do to fight for the privilege to stay in America," she said.
Obama's campaign said previously he did not know about his aunt's status but believes she should obey the law. The campaign said it was returning $260 that Onyango had contributed in small increments to Obama's presidential bid over several months.
"President-elect Obama does not know the details of Ms. Onyango's legal situation, but as stated previously, he expects that all outstanding issues would be resolved through the appropriate legal process," Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said Friday.
Wong, a prominent immigration attorney and frequent political contributor to candidates of both parties, said Onyango believes someone leaked information about her immigration status to try to hurt Obama's candidacy.
"She's upset that people could just hurt her like that ... use her to try to hurt Barack," Wong said.
"She had never asked Barack for help. She just doesn't want to hurt him," she said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said it is investigating whether any laws or rules were broken in the disclosure that Obama's aunt was living in the United States illegally. The AP had reported Oct. 31 that she had been instructed to leave the country four years ago by an immigration judge who rejected her request for asylum from Kenya, which has been fractured by violence in recent years, including some two months of bloodshed that killed 1,500 people after December 2007.
Wong said she was contacted recently by Onyango's cousin a clergyman in Cleveland whom Wong would not identify and asked to represent her. She said Onyango fled Boston after the story broke last week and took a train to Cleveland to stay with her cousin.
The publicity around Obama's aunt's case could convince an immigration judge to rethink her asylum request, said Victor Cerda, the former director of Detention and Removal Operations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She and her lawyers could argue her risk of harm in Kenya is even greater than before, because of the international attention brought to her case.
Onyango has been sickly since her immigration status became public, and Wong said she would not immediately make her available to speak to a reporter.
Obama was raised largely by his mother and her parents in Hawaii. He first met his father's side of the family when he traveled to Africa 20 years ago. He referred to Onyango as "Auntie Zeituni" when describing the trip in his memoir, saying she was "a proud woman."
Obama's campaign said he had seen her a few times since that meeting, beginning with a return trip to Kenya with his future wife, Michelle, in 1992. Onyango visited the family in Chicago on a tourist visa at Obama's invitation about nine years ago, the campaign said, stopping to visit friends on the East Coast before returning to Kenya.
She attended Obama's swearing-in to the U.S. Senate in January 2005, but campaign officials said Obama provided no assistance in getting her a tourist visa and doesn't know the details of her stay. The campaign said he last heard from her about two years ago when she called saying she was in Boston, but he did not see her there.
Onyango's former lawyer, Godson Anosike, of Cambridge, told the AP on Friday that he and Onyango shared their excitement when Obama was elected U.S. senator, but she never told him the two were family.
Anosike said when he gave Onyango the news in 2004 that the judge had rejected her request for asylum, she was disappointed.
"I guess she was trying to figure out what next to do, and she told me that if worse came to worse, she was going to leave ... she was thinking of returning to Kenya, that was my understanding," he said.