Obama’s Aunt in Boston Immigration Court

As a lawyer specializing in deportation defense who frequently appears in Boston Immigration Court, I find it fascinating that a close family member of the President appeared yesterday in our court before our own Immigration Judge Shapiro.  Zeituni Onyango, the Kenyan aunt of President Obama, is in deportation proceedings in Boston as everyone on the populated Earth knows by now.

Of course, asylum applications are confidential.  I certainly have no direct knowledge about this case.  But my experience as a deportation lawyer in Boston tells me that Ms. Onyango’s immigration case has been widely reported in a way that is quite misleading.  The headline of the Boston Globe, for instance, claims that the Immigration Judge allowed Ms. Onyango to stay in the U.S. until February 2010.  What is misleading about this headline is that it falsely suggests that the Immigration Judge made a discretionary decision in favor of Ms. Onyango.  This is not at all what happened at the hearing yesterday.

Allow me to explain.  But first, some background:  In 2004, according to press reports, Ms. Onyango applied for asylum and the Immigration Court in Boston denied her application.  As a result, she received an order of removal.  The Immigration and Nationality Act allows applicants to reopen removal proceedings where the applicant can present evidence of changed circumstances that could not have been presented at the prior hearing. My guess is that the immigration lawyer defending Ms. Onyango filed a motion to reopen and argued that the conditions in Kenya have changed in a way that would affect the merits of her claim.  A second and obvious argument as to changed circumstances is that Ms. Onyango would likely be a target if she were returned to Kenya because she is now well known as the aunt of the President of the United States.

After Ms. Onyango filed her motion to reopen her order of removal, the Immigration Court in Boston had to make a discretionary decision as to whether to grant or deny the motion to reopen.  It is clear that the Court granted her motion to reopen because if it hadn’t, she wouldn’t have had to appear in Immigration Court.

What actually happened in Boston Immigration Court yesterdays is that, most likely, Ms. Onyango appeared at what is called a master calendar hearing.  A master calendar hearing is usually a brief, administrative hearing in which the Immigration Judge sets up the issues in contention and, typically, schedules a merits hearing at which these issues can be addressed.

So when the Boston Globe announced that Immigration Judge Shapiro allowed Ms. Onyango to remain in the U.S. until February 2010, what really happened is that she just showed up for a routine master calendar hearing and the Immigration Judge scheduled her to return for a merits hearing.  That’s it.  The Immigration Judge didn’t grant her a reprieve or approve her application for asylum.  This result gives us little indication about her prospects for success in immigration court.  It does tell us that the docket of Boston’s Immigration Court is so full that asylum applicants need to wait almost 12 months to have their cases heard–even if your nephew is the President!