Experts: Leak On Obama’s Aunt Could Make Persecution More Likely

November 3, 2008 10:51 a.m.

It looks like last week’s leak of information about the immigration status of Barack Obama’s aunt might be even more despicable than we’d thought.

The Associated Press reported Saturday morning that an application for asylum made by Obama’s aunt, Zeituni Onyango, was rejected four years ago by an immigration judge. It sourced the information to a federal law enforcement official, and another source in a position to know.

We added later that day that the leak — which is now being probed by government investigators — appears to clearly violate government regulations, as laid out in a memo written by a US Customs and Immigration Services official.

But the memo also contains one important reason why there’s such a strong prohibition against disclosing asylum applications. It reads:

These regulations safeguard information that, if disclosed publicly, could subject the claimant to retaliatory measures by government authorities or non-state actors in the event that the claimant is repatriated, or endanger the security of the claimant’s family members who may still be residing in the country of origin. Moreover, public disclosure might, albeit in rare circumstances, give rise to a plausible protection claim where one would not otherwise exist by bringing an otherwise ineligible claimant to the attention of the government authority or non-state actor against which the claimant has made allegations of mistreatment.

In other words, the leak could well increase the chances that Onyango could be persecuted — maybe even tortured — for seeking asylum in the U.S. if she is ultimately deported to Kenya. Or that her family members could be similarly mistreated, whether or not she’s deported. And thanks to that very danger, the leak could even bolster Onyango’s asylum claim.

Immigration experts confirmed to TPMmuckraker that this reading was accurate.

Matthew Hoppock, an immigration lawyer in Kansas City who focuses on asylum cases, noted the regulations in an email to TPMmuckraker, and argued that the leak has “made it more likely that if Ms. Onyango is removed to her home country, she will face persecution for having sought asylum in the United States.”

Dan Kowalski, an immigration law expert and the editor of the the online newsletter, Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, agreed. In an email to TPMmuckraker, he added that the leak is sufficiently serious that, because of it, Onyango now “has a good shot at reopening her case.”

We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the investigation into the source of the leak.

Support The TPM Journalism Fund
  • Contributions allow us to hire more journalists
  • Contributions allow us to provide free memberships to those who cannot afford them
  • Contributions support independent, non-corporate journalism
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Senior Editor:
Special Projects Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front-End Developer:
Senior Designer: