By Maria Sacchetti, Globe Staff
President Obama's aunt, a Kenyan immigrant who ignited controversy last year for living in the United States illegally, has returned to her quiet apartment in a Boston public housing complex to prepare for an April 1 deportation hearing.
When her case emerged in the waning days of the presidential race last year, Zeituni Onyango, a tall, frail-looking woman in her late 50s who walks with a cane, fled the media attention to stay with relatives in Cleveland.
She attended Obama's inauguration in January and, according to neighbors, returned to Boston a few weeks ago for her third attempt to fight removal from the United States. She had been living in the country illegally since she was ordered deported in 2004.
Onyango is a half-sister of the president's late father, Barack Obama Sr., who was absent most of Obama's life and who died in a car accident in 1982. The president met his aunt during a trip to Kenya and included her in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father," but has said he was unaware of her immigration issues.
Now the woman Obama called "Auntie Zeituni" is in a national spotlight, where she is being seen as a test for the president's commitment to enforcing immigration laws.
Obama has not had any involvement in the case, and believes that the case should run its ordinary course, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said today.
Critics, outraged that she is living in taxpayer funded public housing while thousands of citizens and legal immigrants are on waiting lists, are scrutinizing the case for political favoritism. Others caution that she may have legitimate grounds to stay in the United States.
"The case is unusual in American history because it�s a relative of the president involved in immigration matters," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. "It really does present the White House with an opportunity or a minefield. If they follow through on a decision that she should go home, that would actually raise the president�s credibility enormously on immigration enforcement."
Onyango's fate will play out behind closed doors before veteran immigration Judge Leonard Shapiro in Boston. Onyango's lawyer Margaret Wong of Ohio successfully argued to reopen her case in December and have the proceedings closed to the public, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts.
Onyango declined two requests for interviews in recent days.
Wong has not responded to repeated requests for comment. But her spokesman told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in January that Onyango would present new evidence to back an asylum claim.