Zeituni Onyango came to the United States seeking asylum from her native Kenya but was turned down and ordered to leave the country in 2004. Four years later, she is still here. And her nephew is about to become president of the United States.
Onyango's family connection to Barack Obama has thrown a spotlight on a phenomenon many Americans might find startling: An estimated half-million immigrants are living in the United States in defiance of deportation orders.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up efforts to catch fugitive aliens, as they are known, and now has about 100 “fugitive operations teams” around the country. In the past year, the teams have made 34,000 arrests, more than double the number two years ago. But there are still 560,000 such immigrants in the U.S.
Fugitive aliens include people who, like Obama's aunt, sought asylum in the United States but were rejected and ordered to leave the country. Others were caught entering or living in this country illegally, and failed to show at their deportation hearings.
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Often, illegal immigrants who have been issued deportation notices are given a certain amount of time to get out of the country on their own. They are not forcibly put aboard a plane; these deportations essentially operate on the honor system.
Generally, if these immigrants stay out of trouble, they are in little danger of being thrown out of the country.
Government officials say that they do the best they can with the money and manpower available, and focus on the most serious cases, including those involving illegal immigrants who have committed crimes in this country.
It is not clear when Onyango, the 56-year-old half-sister of Obama's late father, first came to the United States. But she moved into a state-subsidized public housing project in Boston in 2003.
After it was reported that she was in the country illegally, Onyango left Boston and went to Cleveland, where she hired an immigration attorney to fight her deportation order. She is staying with relatives in Cleveland, said her new attorney, Margaret Wong.
The Obama camp has said the candidate did not know about his aunt's status. “If she is violating laws, those laws have to be obeyed,” Obama said just before Election Day.