What’s become of Aunti Zeituni?

By Jon Feere and Jon Feere on April 1, 2009

President Obama’s aunt Zeituni Onyango was finally deported today, exactly six years after being ordered by a judge to leave the country.

April fools!

At her hearing today in a Boston immigration court, Onyango was granted an extended stay until at least February 4, 2010. As expected, this morning’s hearing was simply a preliminary hearing; a hearing on the merits will be held on this new date. It remains unclear what argument Onyango’s lawyers will present next winter, but they claim to have new evidence that will prevent her existing 2004 deportation order from being enforced. The media has speculated that the new evidence may focus on Onyango’s health problems, political unrest in her homeland of Kenya, or will bolster her previously-rejected asylum case in some way.

Onyango’s multiple appeals were chronicled by the Washington Post:

In 2002, Onyango, the half-sister of Obama’s late father, first applied for political asylum ‘due to violence in Kenya,’ according to a statement released by her attorneys. […] Onyango was first ordered to appear in court for violating immigration laws in March 2003, said Fatimah A. Mateen, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review. [Immigration Judge Leonard] Shapiro turned down her first bid for asylum and ordered her deported the following month. After a series of requests and appeals ultimately were denied, Onyango again was ordered to leave the country Oct. 16, 2004.

Certainly, mercy is part of the idea of justice in the United States and our legal system allows for some appeal. The question is how much is too much. In Onyango’s case, by the time of her next court hearing she will have been living in the United States – largely off the taxpayer’s dime – for approximately 6 years and 11 months. And there are thousands of similar cases that raise the same concerns.

These seemingly never-ending and lengthy appeals contribute in no small way to the belief that our immigration system is broken. It also likely makes it difficult for both citizens and aliens to take our immigration laws seriously. A nation’s immigration system operates to benefit the citizen first and foremost, and the alien secondarily. But because our system of justice in the immigration courts can hardly be considered swift, and because aliens can seemingly ignore court orders without any repercussion, one must ask who has the upper hand—the citizen or the alien?

Immigration hearings should not take as long as they often do. The immigrant should be granted a thorough but quick decision, particularly if the individual is being detained. No one can argue that long-term detention dependent on court efficiency is sound policy. Two things must occur if we are to make our immigration court operate more effectively. First, we should consider increasing the number of immigration courts, at least long enough to reduce the backlog of cases. Second, we should reduce the need for immigration courts. This can be achieved by reducing legal immigration and eliminating illegal immigration. It can also be achieved by narrowing the availability of appeal in some instances. We also must make sure that an alien ordered deported actually leaves the country. By not obeying court orders the first time, Onyango is soaking up limited judicial resources and likely delaying others’ cases. Additionally, the White House can expand expedited removal nationwide as authorized by Congress.

President Obama is certainly juggling a political hot potato with this but case. If he does not get involved and Onyango is deported, it will improve the president’s standing as our nation’s top law enforcement official. So far, Obama seems to be to be taking this approach. But if the president does anything to prevent his aunt’s deportation, it may make the White House’s amnesty agenda much more difficult as Americans begin to call into question the president’s commitment to immigration law enforcement generally.

There is a third option for Aunti Zeituni that has not yet been examined by the mainstream media. Congress can always step in and author a private bill to grant Onyango relief from deportation. The bill would have to be sponsored by one member of Congress, would have to pass the U.S. House of Representative’s immigration subcommittee (the House requires “extreme hardship”), and it would then require a full vote by Congress. And like any other piece of legislation, it would have to be signed by the president. Such a scenario is sure to stir debate.