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Zeituni Onyango
Born 29 May 1952 (1952-05-29) (age 57)
Home town South Boston, Massachusetts
Parents Hussein Onyango Obama, Sarah Obama[1]

Zeituni Onyango (English pronunciation: /zeɪˈtuːn ənˌjɑːŋoʊ/ zay-TOON-ən-YAHNG-oh) (born 29 May 1952) is a part-time public health advocate in Boston and the half-aunt of United States President Barack Obama.[1][2][3] Onyango is the half-sister of Obama's late father Barack Obama, Sr..[3] She is referred to as "Aunti Zeituni" in Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father.[4]

In 2002, Onyango, a native of Kenya, sought political asylum in the United States citing violence: Kenya and East Africa have seen an escalation in violence in the 2000s.[5][6] Her case was denied in 2004 but she remained in South Boston, Massachusetts, and has since retained legal representation.[5] In violation of the policies of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) her case was leaked in the final days of the 2008 U.S. presidential election in which Obama was the Democratic candidate.[7] Her case became the subject of international media attention highlighting "the hot-button topic of illegal immigration into a race that has largely avoided it" and the contradictory rules governing public housing in Massachusetts.[7][8] It also sparked an investigation by the DHS as to how her case was leaked and added heightened administrative review on asylum deportations until after the 2008 general election.[7][8] Onyango's case is often cited in light of immigration reform efforts of the Obama administration.[9]



Onyango worked as a computer programmer at Kenya Breweries in Nairobi when she first met Barack Obama in 1988 during his first trip to Kenya.[1] Obama's father and Onyango's half-brother, Barack Obama, Sr., had left him when he was two and was only known through the stories told by Obama's mother and her parents and a return month-long visit eight years later.[10] Barack Obama, Sr. had remarried in Kenya and fathered six children, he died in 1982 and Obama's trip to Kenya was to meet the other half of his family.[10] He writes about his journey and meeting Onyango, referred to as "Aunti Zeituni", in his memoir Dreams from My Father.[11][12] Onyango is the person who explains the significance of Obama's father being the first to fly in an airplane and study abroad, she also explained of the complicated extended family on Obama's side from several marriages and his rise in government to senior economist in the Kenyan Ministry of Finance before conflict with President Kenyatta destroyed his career.[13][14] Besides President Obama, Barack Obama Sr. fathered six other sons and a daughter. All but one live in Britain or the United States.[15] Onyango has visited America multiple times since 1975, returning to Kenya each time until the 2000s.[8]

Onyango came again to America on a temporary visa in 2000 along with a son who had been accepted at a college in Boston.[16] Commercial databases show she received a Social Security card in 2001 indicating she was legally present in the country at that time.[6] Since 2003 she has been living in a South Boston public housing project, according to Boston Public Housing Authority (BHA) officials.[2] William McGonagle, deputy director of the Authority, noted Onyango did a good job as a public health advocate on behalf of the Boston Housing Authority.[2][17] She also works as a volunteer computer systems co-ordinator for the Experience Corps, a program in which adults over 55 mentor children in their communities.[1] McGonagle added “We have no affirmative responsibility I am aware of to further check on their status after they are initially deemed to be eligible.”[18] Onyango was in legal status as an asylum seeker at the time she applied for public housing in 2002.[1][5] A BHA official stated the agency was never notified of a deportation order.[19] Described as a frail woman who walks with cane she lives in flat normally set aside for people facing physical hardship.[1] She moved into the apartment, run by Massachusetts authorities, after back surgery made walking difficult.[5] A 1977 federal consent decree, resulting from a class action lawsuit in Waltham, prohibits state officials from denying public housing to illegal immigrants.[5] State senator Robert Hedlund is reportedly working on getting the state subsidized housing situation to parallel more recent federal rulings.[20] Onyango's immigration lawyer since 2008, Margaret Wong, stated Onyango could be barred from reentering for up to ten years if she left the US now.[21] Wong stated that Onyango needed to stay for medical care because she could not walk.[21] Described by Obama as "a proud woman" in his memoir, Wong stated “she has to go in a wheelchair but because of her pride she tries to give the impression that she can walk”.[21][22] There is no evidence that Onyango has ever used or requested the use of a wheelchair, however.


Political background

Kenya is a country of ethnic and linguistic diversity. Most Kenyans are bilingual in English and Swahili, also a big percentage speak their mother tongue of their ethnic tribe. Onyango speaks Dholuo.

In 2002 Onyango applied for political asylum in the United States citing violence in Kenya; a federal immigration judge eventually rejected the request and instructed her to leave the country.[6][23] Joan Friedland, a lawyer and immigration policy director at the National Immigration Law Center in Washington noted that even though an immigration judge makes a decision other options exist for a claimant.[5] Onyango and the Obama family are members of the Luo tribe, Kenya's third-largest (12%) ethnic group.[12][24][25] Kenya has seen "longtime ethnic tension between the Luo and Kikuyu"; the Kikuyu are the most populous tribe accounting for approximately 22% of the country's people.[26][27] Tensions between the Luo and the Kikuyu can be traced to the mid-1960s post-independence period when a bitter falling out between the president (a Kikuyu) and his Vice President Jaramogi Odinga (a Luo) resulted in a "sustained political persecution of the Luo" who remain one of Kenya's most marginalised groups.[28] Kenya's current prime minister and former opposition leader, Raila Odinga, is also Luo tribe, he is Jaramogi Odinga's son and has claimed to be related to the Obamas.[29][30] Odinga serves as Prime Minister of Kenya with president Mwai Kibaki (a Kikuyu) in a coalition government. Throughout the 2000s Kenya and East Africa have seen widespread ethnic violence including killings,[8][31][32] and the displacement of thousands.[33][34][35] In 2002 the National Rainbow Coalition won political control of Kenya but the country remained politically unstable with alleged electoral manipulation which was widely confirmed by international observers in the 2007 elections.[36][37] The political fallout from the 2007 election resulted in a country-wide economic and humanitarian crisis. The American Prospect noted Onyango's chances of being persecuted and tortured or that family members could be similarly mistreated, whether or not she's deported, had increased as a result of her case being leaked and widely publicized.[27] They also noted that due to the heightened danger her asylum claim was bolstered.[27] When her case was revealed in international media she fled from her home to stay with friends in Cleveland, Ohio; she felt threatened with people calling and knocking on her door at all hours.[16] The Boston police said that there was a problem with curiosity seekers and paparazzi.

Immigration status

Legal status of persons

Leave to Remain
Illegal immigration

Legal designations

Native-born citizen
Naturalized citizen
Migrant worker
Illegal immigrant
Political prisoner
Stateless person
Administrative detain

Social politics

Immigration law
Nationality law
Nativism (politics)
Immigration debate

Onyango became the subject of widespread and international media attention in the final week of the 2008 U.S. presidential election in which Obama was the Democratic candidate. The impetus for the scrutiny was an article by the Associated Press, based on anonymous government sources, which reported that Onyango was living in the United States without valid immigration status, after being asked by an immigration judge to leave the country. Although such an order from a judge can be appealed, it is not known if Onyango appealed the order[38] Several news organizations described Onyango as an illegal immigrant although she apparently was issued a Social Security card in 2001 indicating she was legally present and authorized to work at that time.[38][39] [40]

Onyango's case resulted in a special nationwide directive within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requiring any deportations to be approved at the level of ICE regional directors before the U.S presidential election. In discussing Onyango's case, various media outlets have discussed some of the issues of immigrants including political asylum cases. MSNBC's Domenico Montanaro noted that thousands of people live for years in the US after receiving deportation orders.[41] "Fugitive apprehension teams usually target suspects with criminal records before they go after simple immigration violators".[41] Of an estimated ten million illegal immigrants, The Washington Post noted that an estimated 550,000 persons that have been denied asylum continue to reside in the United States.[42][43] Onyango has been under a deportation order since 2006, when Obama was a senator.

Unlawful Activity

Onyango illegally contributed money to Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. It is illegal for foreign citizens and/or immigrants without green cards to make political donations. The campaign stated they would return the donations regardless of her status to avoid any appearance of wrongdoing.[3][44] One of the six commissioners of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Ellen Weintraub, stated she was unsure if the agency - charged with administering and enforcing finance statutes that govern the election - had any mechanism to prevent contributions from foreign nationals.[45] Weintraub stated donors are not required to furnish the FEC with Social Security Numbers and the two major parties have large opposition research departments to look for irregularities including "foreign-sounding names".[45]

Legality regarding release of information

The Washington Post noted federal privacy law restricts the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from disclosing information about citizens and permanent residents, and DHS policy limits disclosures about immigrant's status.[46] Asylum seekers are granted greater protection from release of information to the public, because of the sensitive nature of their claims and the risks of retaliation.[46] In a statement, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the matter has been referred to the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility and its parent department's inspector general.[46] "They are looking into whether there was a violation of policy in publicly disclosing individual case information", ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. "We can't comment on individual cases."[38]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Barack Obama's aunt found living in rundown public housing estate
  2. ^ a b c "For Obama Aunt, a Quiet South Boston Life"
  3. ^ a b c First read, MSNBC
  4. ^ Boston Housing Authority 'flabbergastered' Barack Obama’s aunt living in Southie
  5. ^ a b c d e f "BHA takes heat for housing Obama's aunt"
  6. ^ a b c "Disclosure about Obama's aunt may have broken federal law"
  7. ^ a b c "Obama's aunt the focus of visa scandal"
  8. ^ a b c d "Obama didn't know his aunt was in U.S. illegally; says all laws should be followed"
  9. ^ "Bush admin. makes immigration strides in 2008"
  10. ^ a b "Obama's extraordinary journey"
  11. ^ "Boston Housing Authority ‘flabbergastered’ Barack Obama's aunt living in Southie"
  12. ^ a b "I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds"
  13. ^ The Obama Nation
  14. ^ Scott Fornek (9 September 2007). "Barack Obama Sr.: Wrestling with ... a Ghost". The Chicago Sun Times.,BSX-News-wotreev09.stng. Retrieved 26 September 2008. 
  15. ^ Ancestry of Barack Obama
  16. ^ a b "Barack Obama's aunt, Zeituni Onyango, is living in Cleveland"
  17. ^ "Obama's aunt 'in the US illegally'"
  18. ^ Boston Housing Authority: Aunt Zeituni OK by federal rules
  19. ^ "Obama aunt not seen in recent days"
  20. ^ "Boston Housing Authority: Aunt Zeituni OK by federal rules: Barack Obama kin part of law loophole"
  21. ^ a b c "Barack Obama's 'Auntie Zeituni' cannot walk, says lawyer"
  22. ^ "Obama's aunt to fight to stay in US"
  23. ^ "Obama Was Unaware of Aunt's Status, Aides Say"
  24. ^ Gaston, Bruno, "'Nilotic' Link Places Obama's Roots in Southern Sudan", Redding News Review, Atlanta, September 3, 2008
  25. ^ "In Kenya, Obama Win Sparks Celebration"
  26. ^ CIA Factbook [1] retrieved on 16 October 2007
  27. ^ a b c "The Danger Facing Zeituni Onyango"
  28. ^ "Why Kenya's pride in Obama victory is tempered"
  29. ^ "Raila Odinga claims Obama is his cousin", BBC News, 1/8/08.
  30. ^ Some Kenyans forget crisis to root for Obama, Reuters, 1/8/08.
  31. ^ "Al Jazeera English - News - Kenya Ethnic Clashes Intensify". 2008. Retrieved 24 February 2008. 
  32. ^ "Kenya police in 'shoot to kill' row", Al Jazeera, 13 January 2008.
  33. ^ U.N.: 600,000 Displaced In Kenya Unrest
  34. ^ "Kenya opposition cancels protests". BBC News. 2008-01-07. Retrieved 24 February 2008. 
  35. ^ "Kibaki offer on unity government", BBC News, 5 January 2008.
  36. ^ "Kenya rivals agree to share power". BBC News. 28 February 2008. Retrieved 1 March 2008. 
  37. ^ "Kenya's election seen as badly flawed". Reuters. 18 September 2008. Retrieved 29 October 2008. 
  38. ^ a b c "Disclosure About Obama's Aunt May Have Violated Privacy Policy"
  39. ^ "Obama's immigrant aunt exposed"
  40. ^ "Obama's presidential campaign rocked by revelation his aunt is an illegal immigrant in the U.S."
  41. ^ a b "OBAMA: ICE, ICE, BABY"
  42. ^ "Family storm aside, Barack Obama feels wind of change"
  43. ^ "Disclosure About Obama's Aunt May Have Violated Privacy Policy"
  44. ^ Gardiner Harris (1 November 2008). "Obama Unaware of Status of Aunt, Campaign Says". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). Retrieved 1 November 2008. 
  45. ^ a b "FEC Commissioner ‘Doesn’t Know’ If Analysts Can Catch Foreign Contributions"
  46. ^ a b c "Disclosure About Obama's Aunt May Have Violated Privacy Policy"

External links


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