President Barack Obama‘s aunt will remain in the United States until at least next year as she awaits a chance to make her case before an immigration judge in her bid for asylum from her native Kenya.
Zeituni Onyango (zay-TUH’-nee awn-YAHN’-goh) had an initial appearance in U.S. Immigration Court in Boston on Wednesday. At the brief hearing, a judge set her case to be heard Feb. 4, 2010.
Onyango wore a curly red wig to the hearing and declined to comment to reporters as she was led away from court by her attorneys and police from the Federal Protective Service, a component of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement responsible for security at federal buildings.
Onyango, 56, first applied for asylum in 2002, but her request was rejected and she was ordered deported in 2004. She did not leave the country and continued to live in public housing in Boston.
Her lawyer, Cleveland immigration attorney Margaret Wong, said in a statement Wednesday that Onyango first applied for asylum “due to violence in Kenya,” but she did not reveal what grounds she has cited in her renewed bid for asylum. The court hearing was closed at her lawyer’s request.
Wong’s spokesman, Mike Rogers, said the next hearing date was set for nearly a year later because Judge Leonard Shapiro’s calendar is so booked.
Ilana Greenstein, a Boston immigration attorney who handles a large volume of asylum cases, said 10 months is not an unusual lag time between hearings in immigration court.
“That’s just the way it goes,” she said. “Most of the judges are so overloaded, their case logs are so astronomical that they are forced to set cases out up to 18 months.”
The hearing next February is known as an “individual hearing,” or merits hearing, when Onyango will be given the opportunity to present her reasons for seeking asylum. The Department of Homeland Security acts as a prosecutor at such hearings. The judge will then decide if Onyango will be allowed to stay in the United States or whether she will be deported.
Obama has said he did not know his aunt was living here illegally and believes laws covering the situation should be followed.
Onyango’s status as an illegal alien was revealed just days before Obama was elected in November. After intense media coverage, Onyango left Boston and went to Cleveland to live with a relative.
In December, a judge agreed to suspend her deportation order and reopen her asylum case.
Wong said in a statement that she is “working hard to keep matters in the court system and towards a favorable outcome for Ms. Onyango.”
Onyango, the half-sister of Obama’s late father, first moved to the United States in 2000.
Since Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, periodic tensions have arisen among the Luos – Onyango’s tribe – and some of Kenya’s other tribes, including the Kikuyus, the largest tribe in Kenya.
In 2008, more than 1,000 people were killed in the East African nation following a disputed presidential poll, in which a Luo candidate, Raila Odinga, was declared the loser to President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu.
People who seek asylum must show that they face persecution in their homeland on the basis of religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.