BOSTON — President Barack Obama's aunt, a Kenya native who once cared for his siblings, defied a deportation order in 2004 and became a political liability for her famous nephew, is preparing to make her case in federal Immigration Court that she be allowed to stay in the United States.
Zeituni Onyango, 57, is expecting to make her second bid for political asylum Thursday before an immigration judge in Boston and could potentially argue that her relationship to the president would make her a political target in Kenya's unstable political climate.
"She wants to stay in this country so bad," said Mike Rogers, a spokesman for her attorney.
Onyango moved to the United States in 2000 and first applied for asylum in 2002. Her request was rejected and she was ordered deported in 2004, but she did not leave the country and continued to live in public housing in Boston.
Her status as an illegal immigrant was revealed just days before Obama was elected in November 2008. Obama said he did not know his aunt was living here illegally and believes laws covering the situation should be followed. A judge later agreed to suspend her deportation order and reopen her asylum case.
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.
Onyango's immigration attorney, Margaret Wong of Cleveland, said last year that her client 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 East African nation is fractured by cycles of electoral violence every five years.
Onyango did not return telephone calls seeking comment this week. But in an interview in November, she said she did not tell Obama she was in the country illegally and never asked him to intervene. She also said she has her exiled herself from Obama and his family because she didn't want to become political fodder for his foes.
"Before, we were family. But right now, there is a lot of politics, and me, I am not interested in any politics at all," Onyango told The Associated Press at the time.
During the "merits hearing" Thursday, Onyango and her lawyers will get the opportunity to present her reasons for seeking asylum. Wong did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The Department of Homeland Security acts as a prosecutor at such hearings. After hearing from both sides, Judge Leonard Shapiro will decide whether Onyango will be allowed to stay in the United States or whether she will be deported.
Wong's spokesman, Mike Rogers, would not discuss the immigration hearing, which is closed to the public at Onyango's request. But he said Onyango hopes she will be allowed to stay in the United States and believes "she will prevail once people get the whole story."
Onyango, the half-sister of Obama's late father, helped care for the president's half-brothers and sister while living with Barack Obama Sr. in Kenya.
She now lives in a small apartment in a subsidized public housing complex for seniors and the disabled. She said in November that she is learning to walk again after being paralyzed for more than three months because of Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder.
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 after a disputed presidential election in which a Luo candidate, Raila Odinga, was declared the loser to President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu.
Lisa Laurel Weinberg, a Massachusetts attorney who specializes in asylum cases, said that if Onyango cited tribal tensions as her reason for seeking asylum, she would have to show that she would be "individually targeted within that tribal conflict."
"It could be why the case got reopened," she said. "The conditions did change in Kenya over the last couple of years."
Asylum cases are difficult to win, said immigration attorney Hanishi Ali.
"The burden is really on the asylum seeker, who has to prove a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries. Often, that's hard to do," Ali said.
Some immigration experts say Onyango's relationship to the president could strengthen her claim that she would be subjected to danger at home.
Ali said she is unsure what effect Onyango's status as Obama's aunt will have on her asylum bid, but said: "It can't hurt."