Obama's Kenyan Aunt Seeks Asylum Again, Awaits Ruling on Deportation

White House says it has had no involvement with Onyango or the case.

February 3, 2010, 6:06 PM

WASHINGTON Feb. 4, 2010— -- President Obama's Kenyan aunt appeared before a U.S. immigration judge in Boston today, taking the stand for more than two-and-a-half hours to explain why she should not be deported.

Zeituni Onyango, 57, is fighting a 2004 removal order by seeking asylum in this country, a status granted to those who cannot return home out of fear of being persecuted.

But just what persecution Onyango claims to face and whether the judge will find her fears well-founded remains uncertain. The closed hearing concluded without a final decision by the judge, who now either can issue a decision in the coming months or continue the case on May 25.

Onyango first applied for asylum in 2002 "due to violence in Kenya," but was denied and ordered to leave the country.

Instead of returning home, the woman who helped raise the president's half brothers and sister in Kenya and whom Obama affectionately referred to as "Auntie Zeituni" in his memoir has remained illegally in Boston, living in subsidized public housing.

Onyango arrived at the courthouse in a wheelchair, and Mike Rogers, a spokesman for her lawyer, Margaret Wong, said Onyango's medical conditions would be part of the case. Two doctors also were expected to testify.

The case, which first surfaced in October 2008, just before the presidential election, once again is drawing international attention and sparking speculation about whether Obama will intervene on her behalf.

"President Obama must either deport his aunt or destroy his own credibility by showing her favoritism," said William Gheen of the conservative Americans for Legal Immigration PAC.

The White House has insisted that it has no involvement with Onyango's case, leaving it to follow an ordinary course before a federal judge who will apply the rule of law.

"We would continue to say that everybody in this country should and must follow the law," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said today. "We have not been involved at all in that hearing."

Gibbs also denied that the first family is helping pay any of Onyango's legal fees.

Onyango told The Associated Press she has not been in contact with anyone from the White House or been contacted by them.

Onyango did not respond to ABC News' requests for interviews.

"She hasn't been in touch with the president. He can't help her," Rogers told ABC News.

The Department of Homeland Security, which is part of the Obama administration, is prosecuting the case, which was heard in a closed hearing before U.S. Immigration Court Judge Leonard Shapiro.

Shapiro is a civil service employee and not a political appointee, according to the court.

"The lawyers aren't discussing any strategy, but they feel confident," said Rogers. "Margaret Wong feels 95 percent certain that she will prevail."

Will Obama's Kenyan Aunt Get Rare U.S. Asylum?

While details of Onyango's asylum request are not being disclosed, her case was at least compelling enough to convince Shapiro in December 2008 to take the unusual step of reopening the matter and issuing a stay on her deportation.

Experts speculate that Onyango could be claiming that her relationship to Obama makes her a target of Kenya's political tribal factions fearing her perceived influence, or of Islamic extremist groups seeking to inflict harm on the U.S. president's family.

Asylum is granted by law in cases when an individual faces "persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion," according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

"Certainly, the Kenyan government would not be interested in harming her," said Washington, D.C. immigration lawyer Andres Benach, who regularly takes asylum cases, but is not involved in this case. "So she would have to show that it would be persecution by groups that the Kenyan government is unable or unwilling to control -- maybe al Qaeda-like organizations that operate with a measure of impunity in Kenya."

Convincing a judge that Onyango would face persecution because of her familial relationship with Obama will be hard to prove, Benach said.

Most people who apply for asylum don't receive it because the burden of proof for the feared persecution is that it has at least a 10 percent chance of happening.

"Personal vendettas, random crime, conditions everybody is subjected to, do not support asylum," Benach said.

In 2008, the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review completed 46,237 asylum cases -- 10,743 of which were granted, 13,199 were denied, and 22,295 were other closures, agency spokeswoman Lauren Alder Reid told ABC News.

Kenyans have made up a relatively small portion of asylum requests over the past 10 years. Of the 343 applications, only 60 were granted asylum.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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