Obama’s Aunt: Is This the October Surprise?

Photo from the April 2007 newsletter of Experience Corps Zeituni Onyango, former computer systems coordinator, Boston (no longer on line, except as a thumbnail.) Obama’s aunt’s profile said:

I joined Experience Corps because: I felt that I should help the children in my community. I love people and enjoy interacting with them. My friend had so many wonderful things to say about her work with Experience Corps. Also, I was idle, and this was a chance to get involved.

I know I’m making a difference when: I see the change in children I have worked with. All children are fine as long as they have a good foundation, but there is no foundation without literacy.

My favorite part of tutoring with Experience Corps is: Being able to help children succeed. As an older adult I feel I have much to give young people – as well as my peers. Experience Corps has given me that opportunity.

Working with students teaches me: Just how much I can impact the education of children in the school system. I learn different strategies and approaches to help children and also to improve myself. In addition, being an Experience Corps member has taught me that I can be a leader in my community.

October 30, the Murdoch-owned Times of London published its story, “Found in a rundown Boston estate: Barack Obama’s aunt Zeituni Onyango,”

The Times could not determine their immigration status and an official at Boston City Hall said that Ms Onyango was a resident of Flaherty Way but not registered to vote on the electoral roll. However, that Ms Onyango made a contribution to the Obama campaign would indicate that she is a US citizen.

The paper reported that she had been a computer programmer at Kenya Breweries in Nairobi and framed the story as one about the differing fate of Obama and his relatives in the U.S.. Murdoch’s Fox News reran the same day as “Obama’s Aunt Living in Rundown Boston Neighborhood.” The mainstream Boston Globe also printed a piece. Then, Drudge, the Boston Herald, and blogs like The National Review‘s The Corner picked up the story to disparage Obama. One of the memes was that Obama expected the State to spread wealth around (as he told Joe the plumber) but the candidaste didn’t even help his own relatives. (Ironic, to me, given Clarence Thomas’s harsh comments about his sister Emma Mae Martin. As Jill Niebrugge-Brantley (now a scholar in residence at American University–email) wrote in a 1992 paper being used at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media:

Emma Mae Martin’s life has been very different from her brother’s but her brother has not failed to capitalize on her life. Thomas used Emma Mae as an example of the kind of person welfare made dependent: “‘She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check'” was one of the stock lines he used to describe his only sister as he worked a public speakers circuit (cited in Stansell, 1992: 241). But as Christine Stansell (1992:261) recounts and various news reporters discovered the truth about Martin “was quite different.” She finished high school in Pin Point, married, had three children and began to raise them alone after her husband left her. “While Thomas was attending Yale, she was working two minimum-wage jobs to support the family. When the aunt who raised them suffered a stroke, Martin quit her paid job to take care of her and went on welfare” (Stansell, 1992:261). Those four years were the only time on welfare in Martin’s life of paid labor and family duties. In October 1991, she was working as a cook; she had for much of her life picked crabmeat. Martin had met the fate of many poor women. She had also met the family responsibilities society expects “the woman” to handle. Her brother had not had to interrupt his schooling to take care of the aunt.

Thomas was where he was for many reasons. His own effort was one. The efforts of his aunt and sister were another. The efforts of the millions of black Americans who made the Civil Rights Movement was another. The particular efforts of Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court Justice, he is nominated to succeed, are another: Marshall was the Justice who argued Brown vs. Board of Education in 1956. No matter what his abilities might be, might have been, Thomas under segregation would not have been a Supreme Court nominee. In an open letter to Thomas, African-American jurist Leon Higginbotham (1992:5) writes, “I know that you may not want to be burdened by the memory of their sacrifices. But I also know that you have no right to forget that history.”

Obama does not suffer from this kind of forgetting history, as witness his speech on race, given after he was being questioned for his association with his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

But the plot thickens. This morning, AP ran its own story

Information about the deportation case was disclosed and confirmed by two separate sources, one a federal law enforcement official. The information they made available is known to officials in the federal government, but the AP could not establish whether anyone at a political level in the Bush administration or in the McCain campaign had been involved in its release.

Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone looks back at who has talked to the two AP reporters who authored the story and speculates on the source.

When I read the story, it reminded me of the ACORN leak, also to the AP, back on October 16. And, of course, of the whole Valerie Plame affair. Perhaps this story, too, represented a leak, for political purposes, rather than the work of an enterprising reporter whose piece was picked up by those on the right. And I’m in good company for wondering. John Conyers came to the same conclusion in a letter he sent to Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff, as printed in TPM:

I was startled to read in today’s Associated Press that a “federal law enforcement official” has leaked information about an immigration case involving a relative of Senator Obama. Even more troubling, the AP reports that it could not “could not establish whether anyone at a political level in the Bush administration or in the McCain campaign had been involved,” a very disturbing suggesting (sic) indeed. This leak is deplorable and I urge you to take immediate action to investigate and discipline those responsible.

I note that this is not the first leak of law enforcement information apparently designed to influence the coming Presidential election — in recent weeks law enforcement sources leaked information about an alleged investigation of a community services organization, a leak that the Department of Justice informs me is now under investigation by the Department’s Office of the Inspector General and Professional Responsibility.

Such leaks are deeply harmful to the political process, and the American people expect and deserve better from their government and its law enforcement agencies.

To me, the most eloquent assessment came from Duke (no last name provided) (email), who writes about immigration issues at his blog MigraMatters and also at The Sanctuary. In “Auntie Zeituni: A Symbol of Everything Wrong with Immigration Debate” Duke says,

Basically, the authorities have kept her under wraps until they could use her as a pawn for political gain.

And here is where I see her as symbol for the whole immigration debate.

The right wing has used 12 mil people as political pawns from the start of this current debate. If we look at everything they’ve done from passing HR4437, which they knew would never get through the Senate, to the failed CIR attempts, to the current fascists crackdowns…it’s all been nothing more than political theater. played against the backdrop of real human suffering.

And now they wheel out Obama’s Aunt.

They could have finished her case and deported her ages ago if that was in fact their intent. But it wasn’t. They’re intent was to keep her around to use as a pawn to whip up the base, and peel off independents.

And is that really any different from anything else that’s been going on for the last few years to the rest of the migrant population?

Of course not.

They’ve been demonized, harassed and persecuted in an attempt to maintain political power.

All those on the right who have claimed to want to solve this “problem” with enforcement, and those who claim to want to “fix” the system, have in reality showed very little concern for accomplishing that task. They still believe that there’s too much political gain from perpetuating the current situation. ..And Obama’s aunt is a prime example of that. She’s just another person of color stuck in a failed system, that doesn’t work, who can be used at the appropriate time to beat down a political foe.

UPDATE: See the WaPo’s November 2, 2008 story “Disclosure About Obama’s Aunt May Have Violated Privacy Policy” by Spencer S. Hsu and Judy Rakowsky.

On November 3, 2008 Zachary Roth of TPM explained the danger of leaks, as outlined in a June 15, 2005 Fact Sheet on Confidentialitymemo from Joseph E. Langlois, Director, Asylum Division of the Office of Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations of the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.

These regulations safeguard information that, if disclosed publicly, could subject the claimant to retaliatory measures by government authorities or non-state actors in the event that the claimant is repatriated, or endanger the security of the claimant’s family members who may still be residing in the country of origin. Moreover, public disclosure might, albeit in rare circumstances, give rise to a plausible protection claim where one would not otherwise exist by bringing an otherwise ineligible claimant to the attention of the government authority or non-state actor against which the claimant has made allegations of mistreatment.

Roth writes,

In other words, the leak could well increase the chances that Onyango could be persecuted — maybe even tortured — for seeking asylum in the U.S. if she is ultimately deported to Kenya. Or that her family members could be similarly mistreated, whether or not she’s deported. And thanks to that very danger, the leak could even bolster Onyango’s asylum claim.

Roth says that Matthew Hoppock (email), a lawyer in Kansas City Mccrummen Immigration Law Group , noted the regulations in an email to TPMmuckraker, and argued that the leak has

made it more likely that if Ms. Onyango is removed to her home country, she will face persecution for having sought asylum in the United States.

Dan Kowalski (website), an Austin immigration lawyer who edits Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, wrote an email to Roth that because of the leak Onyango now

has a good shot at reopening her case.

On November 7, Denise LaVoie of AP reported that due to press attention in Boston, Onyango had fled to Cleveland where her cousin, a minister, lives and that he had, on her behalf, contacted immigration attorney Margaret Wong.

Wong, a prominent immigration attorney and frequent political contributor to candidates of both parties, said Onyango believes someone leaked information about her immigration status to try to hurt Obama’s candidacy.

“She’s upset that people could just hurt her like that … use her to try to hurt Barack,” Wong said.

“She had never asked Barack for help. She just doesn’t want to hurt him,” she said….

Wong said she is exploring legal avenues, including filing a motion to reopen her case, or making a humanitarian appeal for her to stay.

“I will try to keep her here legally,” Wong said.

Onyango has been sickly since her immigration status became public, and Wong said she would not immediately make her available to speak to a reporter.

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