By Scott Helman and Eric Moskowitz, Globe Staff
Aides to Senator Barack Obama confirmed today that the Illinois senator has had some contact with his aunt in Boston in recent years, but they said he was not aware that she was reportedly in the country illegally.
The Associated Press reported that Obama's 56-year-old aunt, Zeituni Onyango, who has been living in a South Boston public housing complex, was told to leave the country four years ago by an immigration judge who rejected her asylum request from Kenya. Onyango, who is the half-sister of Obama's late father, could not be reached for comment today.
Obama's campaign said he was not aware of her apparent immigration status and was not involved in her asylum case.
"Senator Obama has no knowledge of her status but obviously believes that any and all appropriate laws be followed," the campaign said.
Onyango had contributed $260 to Obama's presidential bid in small installments, but with federal law prohibiting foreigners from contributing to political candidates, his campaign said it was returning the money.
Obama, who was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia by his Kansas-born mother and her parents, had limited contact with his Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr., and much of his family. Obama first met many of his father's relatives on a trip to Africa 20 years ago, which he describes in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father." In the book he calls her "Auntie Zeituni."
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the AP report that Obama had seen Onyango on a few occasions since, including a later trip to Kenya with his wife, Michelle, and a trip she made to Chicago on a tourist visa -- at Obama's invitation -- roughly nine years ago. Onyango also attended Obama's swearing-in to the United States Senate after he won election in 2004. Obama last heard from her two years ago, when she called to say she was in Boston, according to his campaign.
The Boston Housing Authority, which oversees subsidized housing developments in the city, said today that residents who apply for federally funded housing must prove their legal citizenship or residency, but those applying for state-funded public housing do not.
When Onyango applied in 2002 for public housing, her asylum request was pending so she was an eligible non-citizen, said Bill McGonagle, deputy director of the housing authority.
The authority was not notified by the US Department of Homeland Security that her asylum request had been rejected, and does not track immigration status on its own, McGonagle said. Onyango, who moved into the federally subsidized Old Colony complex in South Boston in 2003, moved to West Broadway earlier this year after requesting a transfer for medical reasons.
Because West Broadway is state funded, McGonagle said, her immigration status may not matter. "I'm not sure this will, or should, affect her tenancy," he said. "I don't believe it is the housing authority's responsibility to enforce federal immigration laws."
A spokesman for state Department of Housing and Community Development said tonight that as a result of 1977 federal consent decree, the state cannot deny state subsidized public housing to illegal immigrants.
The AP said the deportation case was confirmed by two sources, including a federal law enforcement official, but said it could not establish whether there was any political motivation involved by anyone in the Bush administration in disclosing the information. Democrat John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter today to Homeland Security chief Michael Cherthoff asking him to investigate the leak to reporters.
The AP also reported that Onyango's case had prompted an unusual directive within US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement requiring that any deportations before Tuesday's election be approved at least at the level of the agency's regional directors.
"I think people are suspicious about stories that surface in the last 72 hours of a national campaign," Obama's chief campaign strategist David Axelrod told reporters today.
McCain senior adviser Mark Salter declined to comment today, telling reporters "it's a family matter."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.