Wayward relatives a presidential tradition; Obama’s uncle may be latest example

August 31, 2011

The news that a Kenyan uncle of President Obama’s has been living in the United States illegally has brought new attention to a perennial fact in the White House: Wayward relatives can cause trouble.

Onyango Obama, who is known as “Uncle Omar,” has been living in the country for several decades, and a deportation order was issued in 1992, according to news reports. Omar was arrested last week in Framingham, Mass., for drunken driving and is now being held on an immigration detainer.

Omar, who is in his 60s, is the second relative of the president’s to face deportation. In the final days of the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama’s aunt Zeituni Onyango was found to be living illegally in Boston. She was later granted asylum, though her immigration status raised unwanted questions for Obama’s campaign.

“It certainly isn’t rare for a president to have a relative who is embarrassing,” said Gary Boyd Roberts, a scholar at the New England Historic Genealogical Society who has studied presidential lineages. “The question is: Are there other relatives who are illegal? Are there others who have come here after [Obama] was a public figure? ”

Scholars who have studied Obama’s family said they do not think he has ever met his uncle Omar, whom the president refers to only briefly in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” In the book, Obama says he was told that Omar had come to Boston and was “lost.”


This undated booking photo shows Onyango Obama, the uncle of President Obama, who was arrested last week near Boston on a drunken driving charge. (HO/AFP/HO/Framingham Police Department)

Boston Globe reporter Sally Jacobs writes in her biography of the president’s father, “The Other Barack,” that Omar was brought to the city on a visa in 1963 by Barack Obama Sr., who was tasked with helping out his younger siblings.

He helped Omar get accepted into Browne & Nichols, an exclusive preparatory school in Cambridge where the young men wore blazers and white shirts, according to Jacobs. After two years, Omar enrolled in a nearby public school, but after Barack Obama Sr. returned to Kenya, Omar dropped out without graduating.

Before his detention, he had been working in Framingham as a clerk at a liquor store. Omar’s lawyer, Margaret Wong, did not return calls requesting comment Wednesday.

Wong also represented Zeituni Onyango in her asylum appeal. It is unclear whether Omar has made a similar appeal for asylum.

The White House referred calls on Omar’s case to the Department of Homeland Security, which does not comment on individual immigration cases.

Two weeks ago, the Obama administration announced a new immigration policy that prioritizes the deportation of serious criminals over that of immigrants with deep roots in the United States. 

The phenomenon of presidential siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles running afoul of the law is nothing new, Roberts said.

“Remember Jimmy Carter’s brother and Bill Clinton’s brother?” Roberts said, referring to news of Carter’s brother undergoing treatment for alcohol abuse and of Clinton’s brother being convicted on a drug charge.

Presidential relatives living in the country illegally are less common, Roberts said. It is even rare for a president to be the child of an immigrant: The last chief executive whose father was an immigrant was James Buchanan. The 15th president’s father was born in Ireland in 1761.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said he was surprised to learn that Obama had another relative apparently living illegally in the country. “How many illegal immigrants are there in the president’s family?” asked Krikorian, who favors limiting immigration. “But it’s not like the president knew about the guy.”

Omar did, however, know about his famous nephew. He was arrested for reckless driving late last Wednesday in front of the Chicken Bone Saloon, according to the Framingham Police Department log. A copy of the police report, obtained by the Associated Press, records Omar’s response to a police officer asking whether he wanted to make a call for bail.

“I think I will call the White House,” he said.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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