BOSTON — A judge who granted asylum to President Barack Obama's African aunt ruled she deserved to stay in the United States because a federal government official leaked her status to a news organization, making her a potential target for persecution in her native Kenya.
U.S. Immigration Judge Leonard Shapiro blasted the leak by the unnamed official in his 29-page ruling granting asylum to Zeituni Onyango in May. His written decision was released this week through the Freedom of Information Act and first was reported by The Boston Globe.
Shapiro found that a federal government official disclosed Onyango's immigration status and her relationship to Obama to The Associated Press three days before the November 2008 election in which Obama was elected as the first black president.
The AP's story stated that Onyango, the half sister of Obama's late father, had been living illegally in the United States after an immigration judge rejected her request for asylum four years earlier. Information about Onyango's case was disclosed and confirmed by two sources, one of them a federal law enforcement official. Onyango, 58, has been living in public housing in Boston.
Shapiro called the disclosure "a reckless and illegal violation of her right to privacy which has exposed her to great risk," and he criticized the official for using the information for political reasons.
"The disclosure intentionally linked the Respondent's status as an asylum applicant with President Obama's presidential campaign, and the effect was to politicize confidential information about the Respondent which the United States government had no authority to release," Shapiro wrote. "The illegality and political ramifications of this breach were made apparent when, following the breach, President (George W.) Bush swiftly issued a directive requiring federal agents to obtain high-level approval before arresting fugitive immigrants."
Shapiro found that because Onyango's identity and status were disclosed, she would be a target in Kenya not only for those who oppose the United States and Obama but for members of the Kenyan government "who oppose President Obama's politics and/or his ethnicity, which the Respondent shares."
A Department of Homeland Security official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue said an internal investigation launched into the leak in 2008 is expected to come to an end soon.
In his ruling, Shapiro said the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged Onyango was identified in the media as an asylum applicant but did not concede the disclosure was made by a U.S. government official.
DHS argued the disclosure "did not create a new risk of harm" to Onyango because the AP article did not reveal any facts about her asylum claim and because she and her attorney later gave some details about the claim to the media.
The agency said the disclosure did not put her at risk, citing other family members in Kenya who have not been harmed. It also noted the Kenyan government celebrated Obama's election as president and sponsored a delegation of several family members to travel to the 2009 presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C.
Shapiro, however, said Onyango's relationship to Obama is distinct from her Kenyan family members' relationships to him because she has lived in the United States since 2000 and applied for U.S. asylum.
One of Onyango's Cleveland-based lawyers, Scott Bratton, said the asylum process is confidential, in part to protect people who may be sent back to their home countries. Leaking the information just before the election put Onyango at greater risk, he said.
"She is known to everybody now," he said. "She is known to have applied for asylum. She's been thrust into the spotlight, and because of that she has a fear of returning."
In Obama's memoir, "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," he affectionately referred to Onyango as Auntie Zeituni and described meeting her during his 1988 trip to Kenya.
Onyango's case inflamed the national debate over immigration, with some questioning whether Onyango had been given special treatment because of her relationship with the president. The White House has said Obama had no involvement in the case.
Bratton also said the president played no role.
"This wasn't a favor to the president," he said. "The president wasn't involved in this case at all. She went through the asylum process just like anybody else would, and the case was granted."
Onyango initially came to the U.S. in 2000. Her first request for political asylum in 2002 was rejected, and she was ordered deported in 2004. But she didn't leave the country and continued to live in Boston.
A judge later agreed to suspend her deportation order and reopen her asylum case.
Associated Press writer Eileen Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.