BOSTON — Zeituni Onyango, President Obama’s Kenyan-born aunt, who received asylum in the United States in 2010 after years of living illegally in Boston, died on Tuesday in a rehabilitation home here. She was 61.
Her death was confirmed by Margaret Wong, a Cleveland lawyer who represented Ms. Onyango in her immigration case. She said that Ms. Onyango had cancer and respiratory problems.
Ms. Onyango was the half-sister of Mr. Obama’s father.
Mr. Obama wrote about his aunt in his 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” She served as his guide in Kenya — and his guide to some painful family history — during his visit there in 1988. She said that Mr. Obama’s father, who died in a car crash in 1982, had taken her in when her husband became abusive and she had no money.
But there was little or no contact between Mr. Obama and his aunt while she fought to immigrate. She attended his inauguration in 2009, but the two apparently did not see each other.
Ms. Onyango moved to South Boston on a valid visa in 2000 and sought political asylum in 2002. It was denied in 2004, and she was ordered to leave the country, but she refused.
She was living in relative anonymity in Boston until just before the 2008 presidential election, when her illegal status was reported by The Associated Press. The Times of London found her in what it described as “run-down public housing.”
At the time, aides to Mr. Obama said that he had not known that she was in the United States illegally and that “any and all appropriate laws” covering her situation should be followed. The aides said that he would not intervene in her case and that the two had had no contact.
To escape media scrutiny, Ms. Onyango moved to Cleveland, where the Kenyan community took her in, said Ms. Wong, who helped her obtain a green card.
In seeking asylum for Ms. Onyango, Ms. Wong argued that if she were forced to return to Kenya she would face undue attention and perhaps danger because of her nephew’s fame. To be granted asylum, people must show that they would face persecution in their home countries.
In Boston, Judge Leonard Shapiro granted Ms. Onyango asylum in 2010. She died before being granted citizenship.
Ms. Onyango was born in Kenya on May 29, 1952, under a mango tree, and delivered by a midwife in the absence of medical care, Ms. Wong said. She raised a family in Kenya and worked in the computer department at Kenya Breweries, where she managed a staff of 25.
Her memoir, “Tears of Abuse,” was published in 2012. In it she wrote, “The Obama clan is like the Baobab tree; the strength lies in its roots.”
Zeituni Onyango (May 29, 1952 – April 7, 2014) was the half-aunt of United States President Barack Obama. Onyango was the half-sister of Obama's late father Barack Obama, Sr. She is referred to as "Aunti Zeituni" in Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father.
In 2000, Onyango, a native of Kenya, came to the United States illegally and in 2002 sought political asylum in the United States citing violence: Kenya and East Africa have seen an escalation in violence in the 2000s. Her case was denied in 2004 but she remained in South Boston, Massachusetts, and retained legal representation. Her case was leaked in the final days of the 2008 United States presidential election in which Obama was the Democratic candidate.
Her case became the subject of international media attention highlighting "the hot-button topic of illegal immigration into a race that has largely avoided it" and the contradictory rules governing public housing in Massachusetts. It also sparked an investigation by the Department of Health Services as to how her case was leaked and added heightened administrative review on asylum deportations until after the 2008 general election. Onyango's case is often cited in light of immigration reform efforts of the Obama administration.