Obama's Undocumented Aunt: A Reflection of the Nation's Immigration Reality

By Suman Raghunathan, Feet In 2 Worlds consultant

The Associated Press broke the story Friday that presidential candidate Barack Obama has a half-aunt, Zeituni Onyango, who, after her request for political asylum was rejected, is now undocumented and living in Boston.

The range of immigration statuses within Obama’s extended family reflects the reality of many immigrant families in the United States. Both Obama and his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, are US citizens; Soetoro-Ng is married to a Canadian citizen. And like many immigrants, Obama has a large extended family still living in Kenya, his father’s homeland.

Today, mixed-status families are extraordinarily common. For example, according to the Urban Institute, there are at least 5 million children in the country with at least one immigrant parent. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 3 million of these children have at least one parent who is undocumented.

During nearly two decades of historic migration to the US, in a period of extended economic growth powered in large part by immigrant labor, the number of Americans born to immigrant parents has risen steadily. The changes to the nation’s demographic make-up are dramatic. According to Pew, more than half or the growth in the US population in the last decade alone came from Latino communities, much of it due to recent immigrants and their children.

Obama’s own ‘mixed-status’ family is similar to many others, in that he is a citizen child of an immigrant, and other members of the extended family are not themselves citizens. The fact that this is so common underlines the extremely complicated nature of the U.S. immigration system, as we have discussed before here at Feet in 2 Worlds.

It also highlights the difference immigration status makes to accessing various public services and benefits. While her request for asylum was pending, Onyango was eligible for public housing and health insurance. Yet once her claim was rejected, Onyango was immediately ineligible for any and all assistance and public benefits. Asylum decisions are made by immigration judges, and are often informed by quotas for admitting refugees, and US foreign policy toward immigrants’ countries of origin.

Obama briefly referred to Onyango in his memoir, “Dreams of My Father,” as ‘Aunt Tuni’. His campaign has released a statement saying he was unaware of his aunt’s undocumented status. The Obama campaign also said it is returning $260 in contributions Onyango made to her nephew’s presidential bid. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is investigating whether the department’s policies were violated with the release of details of Onyango’s asylum case.

Obama has promised to address immigration reform during his first year in office. Nonetheless, his aunt will likely have to leave the country long before a new administration follows through on campaign promises.