Judge delays Zeituni ruling

February 5, 2010 12:00 am

, BOSTON, Feb 5 – US President Barack Obama\’s aunt could find out by the end of May if she will be deported from the United States as an illegal immigrant in a case that risks embarrassing the White House.

Zeituni Onyango, 57, testified Thursday for two-and-a-half hours at a federal immigration hearing in Boston, Massachusetts, asking for political asylum from Kenya.

At the end of the closed-door hearing, Judge Leonard Shapiro gave attorneys 30 days to present final arguments and set a May 25 follow-up hearing, Onyango\’s attorney, Margaret Wong, said.

"The parties are to submit closing arguments and briefs within 30 days," Wong said. "May 25 a follow-up hearing is scheduled, but there may be a decision before that date."

This was Onyango\’s second attempt to secure asylum after ignoring a 2004 deportation order in what has become a potential political headache for her powerful nephew.

Two other witnesses, both doctors, were testifying in support of Onyango, whose case was based on medical grounds and fears of "tribal violence" in Kenya, according to Wong.

If she is ordered to be deported Onyango plans to appeal, Wong said. The US government also has the right of appeal.

The case puts Obama in a delicate position at a time when he is reeling from his Democratic party\’s failure to pass health care reform legislation and a surge in momentum for the opposition Republicans.

Asked if Obama had submitted written support for Onyango\’s asylum, Wong said: "No."

Although there is no suggestion of favoritism or intervention by the White House, the issue could provide an unwelcome distraction as the year-old Obama presidency struggles to impose itself, as well as fueling right-wing conspiracy theories about Obama\’s exotic family background.

Despite having lived illegally for years in Massachusetts, Onyango was only unearthed by the US media in 2008, days before Obama\’s November election.

The White House said the president was unaware of her illegal status and only found out about it in early November 2008.

"We said then and we would continue to say that everybody in this country should and must follow the law," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, adding that neither Obama nor the family had helped with Onyango\’s legal representation.

"We have not been involved at all in that hearing and will let the law play out as it should," Gibbs said.

The publicity could also affect how Onyango is treated, both here and back in her homeland, lawyers say.

"She\’s the aunt of the president of the United States — the most famous man in the world," Mike Rogers, spokesman for the Ohio law firm defending Onyango, told the Boston Herald.

The newspaper reported that Onyango has requested the case be heard before a closed session, though that is not unusual in immigration hearings.

"The immigration judge will hear the merits of the case from both parties," said Lauren Alder Reid of the US Department of Justice\’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which speaks for the court.

Onyango has said she cut off ties to the president after her legal troubles became public. It remains unclear who is paying for her legal representation, since Onyango has been living in public housing and has no known funds of her own.

She is the half-sister of Obama\’s late father, who was Kenyan and married a white American, who gave birth to the future president in Hawaii.

Onyango moved to the United States in 2000 and applied for political asylum two years later, but was turned down. She was ordered deported in 2004.


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