Corner readers may remember the case of President Obama’s Aunt Zeituni Oyango, a half-sister of the president’s father who, it emerged in the late days of the 2008 presidential campaign, had been living in a Boston public-housing complex after being denied asylum and instructed to leave the United States in 2004. Her status as an illegal immigrant was confirmed to the AP four days before the election by an anonymous official within Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
That official was identified and confessed to disclosing the information after a two-year internal investigation conducted by the Department of Homeland Security’s ICE Office of Professional Responsibility, according to a 20-page report disclosed to the Huffington Post in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The AP called the investigation “an early harbinger of the Obama administration’s aggressive approach tracking down leakers.”
The investigation was concluded in 2010 when the employee, whose name is redacted in the publically available report, acknowledged that he had confirmed Oyango’s immigration status to the AP reporter in violation of privacy rules “because regardless of political affiliation . . . I think the American public has a right to know.” The employee insisted that “I had no political motivations.” The investigation found that in addition to the unauthorized disclosure of an individual’s immigration information, the ICE employee had displayed a “lack of candor” with investigators by initially saying that he had called the AP reporter for social reasons, and that he had misused government property by making the call with a government phone.
When the story broke during the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama denied having any knowledge of his aunt’s immigration status and expressed his view that “If she has violated laws, then those laws have to be obeyed.” His campaign strategist David Axelrod insinuated that the claims about her status might have been fabricated to harm Obama’s chances in the election, saying “I think people are suspicious about stories that surface in the last 72 hours of a national campaign.” Obama’s campaign nevertheless returned $260 that Onyango had contributed to it over several months. (Federal election law prohibits campaign donations from foreigners.) The president described meeting his “Auntie Zeituni” in Kenya in his memoir Dreams from My Father, calling her “a proud woman.”
Oyango was granted asylum in 2010, and expressed no regrets for having violated immigration law. “Ask your system,” she said in an interview at the time. “I didn’t create it or vote for it. Go and ask your system.”
In the course of conducting their investigation, officials interviewed other ICE employees involved in fielding media requests about Oyango. The case caused some confusion within the department, with one female employee initially believing that the Washington Post had called to inquire about the immigration status of Osama bin Laden’s aunt, according to the report.