Kenyans are livid that President Obama's aunt was granted asylum in the US by a Boston judge because she said she feared for her life if she returned to Kenya.
This May, federal Judge Leonard Shapiro ruled that Zeituni Onyango was free to live and work legally in the United States, but his 29-page decision was not released publicly until this week. Many Kenyans scoffed when they learned that Shapiro believed Onyango faced at least "a ten percent chance of future persecution in Kenya" because of her relationship to the president.
Onyango, a 58-year-old who has lived in Massachusetts for 10 years, is a half-sister to Obama's late father, Barack Obama Sr., who was born in Kenya. Dozens of the president's relatives live in the East African nation, where they enjoy a certain celebrity, and none but Onyango have sought political asylum citing possible persecution.
Judge Shapiro referred to Kenya's post-election violence two years ago, when more than 1000 people were killed, as an example of Kenya's lawlessness and the danger to Onyango, and also cited past instances of extrajudicial killings by Kenyan authorities. He also noted Onyango's argument that by seeking asylum she would be considered a "traitor to her government."
The Kenya government's reaction to the rationale for Shapiro's ruling was swift and harsh. The country's Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Mutula Kilonzo called it "ridiculous."
"The insinuation about Kenya's inability to protect Ms Obama is outrageous, misplaced and an insult to the Kenyan state," Kilonzo told Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper. "President Obama's grandmother is here and she is treated like royalty. It is unfortunate because Kenya enjoys cordial relations with the United States."
Ordinary Kenyans have weighed in on message boards and blogs, unhappy with how their country has been portrayed in the case and confused about why the judge seems to have believed claims of Kenya being such a lawless and dangerous country.
Judge Shapiro's ruling did acknowledge that Onyango had not been persecuted by the Kenyan government in the past. He also noted other members of President Obama's family living in Kenya had not been persecuted, but said that Onyango would be an exception because her illegal immigration status and desire for asylum were now in the public domain. He blasted the leaking of her immigration status by a US official, calling it "a reckless and illegal violation of her right to privacy which has exposed her to great risk."
Several members of the President's family reside in Kenya, including his step-grandmother Sarah and his half-sister Auma, both of whom were invited to his inauguration and are very publicly linked to Obama. In Kenya, Sarah "Granny" Obama is a media star. She is a UN Goodwill Ambassador for hunger, and recently received an honorary doctorate from a Kenyan University.
In "Dreams of My Father" President Obama describes meeting Onyango during a visit to Kenya in 1987, affectionately calling her "Aunt Zeituni." Onyango came to America on a tourist visa in 2000 to visit Obama while he was running for the US Senate, and stayed in the country afterwards, applying for asylum in 2002.
Her request was denied and she was to be deported in 2004, but continued to live in the United States in Boston public housing project. Her illegal status came to light in 2008 when she tried to give a contribution to Obama's presidential campaign. She was then granted a stay of deportation and allowed to apply for asylum again.
George Bruno, an immigration lawyer in Manchester, New Hampshire, and former ambassador to Belize during the Clinton administration, calls her grant of asylum "unusual," and says had she not been related to the President of the United States he doubts the outcome would've been the same.
"The key factor in asylum cases is whether or not the person can demonstrate they have been persecuted or subject to threats of persecution if they return," Bruno told ABC News. Shapiro himself said that Onyango didn't prove previous persecution or specific threats against her if she returned, but based the decision on the possibility of her being targeted in the future.
Bruno also said it was odd that Onyango had been granted asylum on the third try.
"What's not unusual is a person in this dilemma, of which there are many and who I speak to on a daily basis, people who have no path to becoming legal, " says Bruno. "She just had the good fortune of being related to the president of the United States. But for that, she would have been denied."
Bruno said it was "inconceivable," however, that the Obama administration had exerted any influence on her behalf. "This is such a hot potato. I can't imagine anything like that occurred."
Bruno also noted that Judge Shapiro, who granted Onyango asylum, is a Republican appointee.
The Obama administration has denied knowing that Onyango was in the US illegally, and has also said it played no part in her asylum case.