Saturday, 2:15 PM
Judge allows Obama's aunt to stay in US until at least Feb. 2010
By Maria Sacchetti Globe Staff
Zeituni Onyango, the Kenyan aunt of President Obama, emerged this morning after a brief, closed-door hearing in US Immigration Court in Boston and smiled broadly.
"Praise God," Onyango said softly, holding her head high as she was surrounded by a throng of men in suits.
Judge Leonard I. Shapiro continued Onyango's case until Feb. 4, 2010, which allowed her to stay in the United States until at least that date, according to Fatimah Mateen, a spokesperson for the court. At the initial appearance, the judge explained the deportation charges against Onyango and detailed her rights. Mateen briefed reporters in the lobby of the courtroom, standing beneath a framed photograph of Onyango's nephew, President Obama.
"Ms. Onyango's case is being treated just like any other case before an immigration judge," Mateen said.
Onyango plans to apply for permanent residency in the United States, according to Mike Rogers, a spokesman for Onyango's lawyers, whose legal strategy remains unclear.
"The decision as to Ms. Onyango's request to stay permanently in the United States will be made during a second hearing," Rogers said.
A security detail hurried her past photographers and a throng of reporters, whisking her in and out of the court without using the public entrances to federal building next to City Hall. Onyango wore a curly, rust-colored wig in what may have been an effort to hide from the media. She also walked with a cane, a consequence of back problems.
The hearing, which was closed at Onyango's request, lasted less than 15 minutes and took place in a small, boxy courtroom with a red rug and nine benches. The third-floor room overlooks City Hall Plaza, where a white circus tent was visible below.
Lawyers for Onyango said yesterday that they planned to present new evidence seeking to reverse a 2004 deportation order and allow her to stay in the United States. The lawyers would not discuss their strategy, such as whether they would focus on her health problems, political unrest in Kenya, or another issue.The former computer programmer, whom the president called Auntie Zeituni in one of his books, is battling a neurological condition in addition to her back problems.
The half-sister of Obama's late father had applied for asylum in the past but lost. Since then, she has been living illegally in the United States, most recently in a South Boston public housing development.
Asylum seekers must show that they fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group.
Onyango's immigration status came to light shortly before the presidential election last year, and she left Boston for Cleveland temporarily to stay with relatives. She had arrived in the United States in 2000 seeking a better life and later applied for asylum.
In 2003, a judge ordered her to leave the country, but she stayed. Later that year, she tried to stay again. But she lost the appeal, and an immigration judge ordered her deported in October 2004.
Instead, Onyango remained in Boston and lived in state and federal public housing. Critics have denounced her for defying deportation and for living in public housing while scores of families are on waiting lists.
Her lawyers successfully argued to reopen her case in December.
The case is widely seen as a test for Obama on immigration enforcement. The president, who said he had been unaware of her immigration problems, has vowed to stay out of the case.