WASHINGTON — The Bush administration quietly withdrew in the weeks after Barack Obama's election a new rule requiring high-level approval before federal agents nationwide could arrest fugitive immigrants. The future for Obama's aunt, who had been living in the country illegally, will be determined at an immigration court hearing in April.
The Homeland Security Department had originally imposed the unusual directive days before Obama's election, an order that would have affected Zeituni Onyango, the half-sister of Obama's late father. She had been instructed to leave the country four years ago by an immigration judge who rejected her request for asylum from her native Kenya.
The directive from Immigration and Customs Enforcement expressed concerns about "negative media or congressional interest," according to a newly disclosed federal document obtained by The Associated Press. The department lifted the immigration order weeks later, on Nov. 26.
The directive made clear that U.S. officials worried about possible election implications of arresting Onyango, who at the time was living in public housing in Boston. She is now believed to be living in Cleveland.
An immigration judge stayed her deportation order on Dec. 17. The judge reopened her case requesting asylum on Dec. 30, and she has a hearing on April 1 in a Boston immigration court, Elaine Komis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Executive Office of Immigration Review, said Monday.
Onyango traveled to Washington last week for her nephew's inauguration. News organizations observed her attending an inaugural ball with her immigration lawyer, Margaret Wong.
Several years ago, Obama's aunt has sought asylum from Kenya. The East African nation has been fractured by violence in recent years, including a period of two months of bloodshed after December 2007 that killed 1,500 people.
Obama has said he didn't know his aunt was living in the United States illegally and believed that laws covering the situation should be followed.
The chronology of events means there was a brief window _ between Nov. 26 and Dec. 17 _ when immigration agents could have arrested and deported Onyango without obtaining the high-level approval required in the government's Oct. 31 directive.
A copy of that directive, "Fugitive Case File Vetting Prior to Arrest," was released to the AP just over two months after it was requested under the Freedom of Information Act. It does not mention President Obama or any members of his extended family.
The immigration directive was lifted weeks after the election, according to an internal e-mail provided Monday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel previously had told the AP the directive was still in place, and the White House told the AP late Sunday that Obama would consider whether to overturn it.
The White House said late Sunday that the Obama administration wasn't briefed on why the directive was issued. It said Obama "has not contacted any government agency regarding Ms. Onyango's case, nor has any representative of the president."
The directive was "effective immediately and until further notice," and required that immigration agents obtain approval from ICE field office directors or deputy directors before arresting fugitives.
"A hold on any actions to proceed with arrest will be placed in the case file until I can review the case and evaluate the impact of the potential media or congressional interest," wrote the assistant field operations director for immigrant detention and removal.
Associated Press writer JoAnne Viviano in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this story.