Boston Housing Agency Barred from Checking Obama’s Aunt’s Immigrant Status

By Tiffany Gabbay | November 3, 2008 | 6:50 PM EST

Boston housing complex where Zeituni Onyango, Barack Obama’s aunt, lives (AP Photo)

( - A loophole in a Massachusetts state law has allowed Zeituni Onyango - Barack Obama’s aunt and an illegal immigrant - to live in state-funded public housing in Boston since 2003, even though a federal immigration judge ordered Onyango to leave the country in 2004 after her request for asylum was denied.
The Boston Housing Authority (BHA) told that illegal immigrants like Onyango can qualify for the state-funded housing in Massachusetts because, unlike federally funded programs, Massachusetts forbids the BHA from even asking about an applicant’s immigration status.
Federally funded vs. state-funded public housing
The BHA administers both federally funded and state-funded housing, according to communications director Lydia Agro.
Federally funded programs require that housing applicants be a U.S. citizen or be an “eligible non-citizen.” The Federal Housing Authority defines eligible non-citizens to mean those immigrants with a resident alien card, a temporary resident card, an employment authorization card or proof of refugee or asylum status.
But there is no such requirement for state-funded housing in Massachusetts, according to Agro.
“The federal program requires (us) to check immigration status, and we do” she told “But the same requirements do not hold true for state-funded housing. State law forbids the housing authority to inquire about an applicant’s immigration status.”
Agro said that Onyango originally qualified as an eligible non-citizen under the federal housing authority requirements.
One year later, the Kenyan national was subject to a deportation order but did not leave and has since shifted from federal to state-funded housing, where verification of her immigration status is prohibited.
When asked about the specific rules for a state-funded housing application process Agro said, “We are not supposed to ask (our applicants) about their immigration (status).”
Agro also said that the BHA had no knowledge of Onyango’s deportation order until it recently came out in media reports.
BHA staff have confirmed that Onyango had been a “volunteer resident health advocate” from December 2007 to August 2008 and worked six hours a week for a “small stipend” – the amount of which BHA has not disclosed. 
In an effort to rectify flaws in the housing authority’s system, state Sen. Robert L. Hedlund Jr. (R-Weymouth) has tried twice to close the loophole that makes it possible for illegal immigrants to obtain state-funded public housing in the commonwealth.
Rick Collins, Hedlund’s communications director, told that, in two separate instances, the Massachusetts Senate had approved an amendment intended to place stricter regulations and penalties on matters dealing with illegal immigration.
“It didn’t get out of the House and Senate conference committee,” Collins said.
“Auntie Zeituni” as Obama affectionately refers to her in his book, “Dreams From my Father,” is the half-sister of Obama's Kenyan father, who is deceased.
She contributed $260 to Obama’s presidential campaign, but the contributions were returned after her immigration status became known – and it was learned that she was allegedly not in compliance with campaign finance laws.
According to a recent Associated Press report, Onyango attended Obama's swearing-in to the U.S. Senate in 2004, but campaign officials said the Democratic presidential candidate provided her no assistance in getting a tourist visa – and said the candidate didn’t know the details of her stay.
The campaign said Obama last heard from his aunt about two years ago when she called saying she was in Boston, “but he did not see her there.”