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Obama’s aunt won rare ruling

Judge who reopened asylum case has history of refusals

Zeituni Onyango was granted asylum Friday. She lives in a Boston public housing complex. Zeituni Onyango was granted asylum Friday. She lives in a Boston public housing complex.
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / May 19, 2010

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President Obama’s aunt managed a rare feat by winning asylum from a judge with a high rejection record, lawyers say, especially after she had defied orders to leave the country.

But Zeituni Onyango, they say, is an extraordinary case.

Immigration lawyers said yesterday that Onyango must have been persuasive in arguing that her circumstances had changed, possibly because of her famous nephew, even though he has taken pains to stay out of her case. She had lived for years in obscurity in Boston public housing, but became a major public figure just days before his historic election when her situation came to light.

Asylum cases are kept confidential in federal immigration court, so it is unclear why Judge Leonard I. Shapiro granted her asylum Friday, six years after she lost an asylum case and was ordered deported. But immigration lawyers said Onyango could have cited more recent factors such as ethnic violence in her native Kenya or her own unexpected celebrity.

“This is a woman who had no appreciable public presence and is all of a sudden an international celebrity, who everybody on the planet will know,’’ said Nancy Kelly, managing attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services’ immigration unit. She is not involved in Onyango’s case.

“That’s a serious new circumstance that would affect your safety.’’

Onyango testified before Shapiro during a closed-door hearing in February. Before that hearing her lawyer, Margaret Wong, said Onyango feared tribal violence if she were forced to return to Kenya.

Onyango is a member of the minority Luo tribe. In late 2007 and early 2008, hundreds of Kenyans were killed in ethnic clashes after a disputed presidential election.

She was also concerned about health problems. Onyango, who turns 58 this month, suffers from Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder.

Asylum seekers must show that they fear persecution in their native lands based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group.

Daniel Kanstroom, a law professor at Boston College who works with immigrants and asylum seekers, said it is unusual for an immigration judge to reopen such a case.

“It’s noteworthy and very discretionary,’’ he said. “To get a judge to reopen an asylum case the asylum seeker would have to show that they have a pretty good likelihood of prevailing in her case.’’

Sarah Ignatius, executive director of the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project in Boston, which works with detainees and others seeking legal aid, said she knows of only a handful of such cases that are reopened every year, adding, “There are very strict standards.’’

Shapiro rejected 67 percent of the asylum cases he heard from 2004 to 2009, higher than the state and national averages, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Nationwide last fiscal year, only 94 Kenyans won asylum through the immigration courts of 332 people who applied for it, according to the courts.

In her tight-knit neighborhood in South Boston, neighbors can easily point out the regal, elegantly dressed woman who taps down the street in high heels with a cane, flashing a dazzling smile. Her eyes are typically shaded in large sunglasses, they said, but she often waves and says hello.

“She just decks out, she really does,’’ said Marie Herlihy, a clerk at the Cumberland Farms convenience store across the street, where Onyango often stops to get quarters so that she can do her laundry or the occasional lottery scratch ticket. “She totally stands out, but in a good way.’’

With her face beaming from newspaper stands since the ruling, Onyango has remained largely in seclusion.

She did not respond to interview requests yesterday.

Two Boston Housing Authority police officers turned away reporters from the lobby of the yellow and red brick public housing complex where she lives.

Neighbors say Onyango is a friendly figure.

She chats with barber Harold Amato about his poinsettia plants, orders chicken wings from the L Street Diner, and shops for groceries at the Stop & Shop around the corner.

Sometimes neighbors help her carry her bags home.

“She’s a sweetheart,’’ Amato said as he clipped a client’s hair. “I wish some of the other people in that building were as nice.’’

Some in the neighborhood were more critical, saying that it was unfair of Onyango to occupy space in public housing when she was living in the United States illegally, especially when thousands of people are on the waiting list for housing.

However, Beth Beaudry, a clerk at Executive Cleaners, said Onyango blends into the neighborhood of longtime residents, college students, and immigrant newcomers.

“She’s just another name in the neighborhood,’’ said Beaudry, leaning on the counter.

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