WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security Department still is requiring high-level approval before federal immigration agents can arrest fugitives, a rule quietly imposed by the Bush administration days before the election of Barack Obama, whose aunt has been living in the United States illegally.
The unusual directive from the Homeland Security Department came amid concerns that such arrests might generate "negative media or congressional interest," according to a newly disclosed federal document obtained by The Associated Press.
The directive makes clear that U.S. officials worried about possible election implications of arresting Zeituni Onyango, the half-sister of Obama's late father, who at the time was living in public housing in Boston. She is now believed to be living in Cleveland.
A copy of the directive, "Fugitive Case File Vetting Prior to Arrest," was released to the AP just over two months after it was requested under the Freedom of Information Act. It does not mention President Obama or any members of his extended family.
The directive is still in place, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Kelly Nantel told the AP. It originally was distributed Oct. 31 by e-mail to immigration officers by an assistant director at the agency. Obama was elected president five days later. Nantel said the directive called for close supervision over any cases that could be high profile. She said it was not specific to Obama's relatives.
The White House said late Sunday that Obama "has not contacted any government agency regarding Ms. Onyango's case, nor has any representative of the president." It said Obama's administration wasn't briefed on why the directive was issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and will consider whether to overturn it.
"Like other rules and directives issued by the previous administration, it will be reviewed and revoked if it does not serve the best interests of the American people," the White House told the AP.
It was unclear what effect, if any, the directive has had on immigration enforcement across the country. Earlier this month 69 people were arrested during an Immigration and Customs Enforcement sweep in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Obama's aunt was instructed to leave the country four years ago by an immigration judge who rejected her request for asylum from her native Kenya. The East African nation has been fractured by violence in recent years, including a period of two months of bloodshed after December 2007 that killed 1,500 people.
Despite the deportation order, Onyango traveled to Washington last week for her nephew's inauguration. News organizations observed her attending an inaugural ball at Washington's Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, a historic luxury hotel, with her immigration lawyer, Margaret Wong.
The AP was first to disclose Onyango's illegal status Oct. 31, hours after the Homeland Security directive was issued.
Obama has said he didn't know his aunt was living in the United States illegally and believes that laws covering the situation should be followed. The White House said late Sunday that Onyango's lawyer, Margaret Wong, contacted Obama's lawyer to confirm Wong's role in the case.
"They agreed at the time that the case should proceed in the ordinary course, with neither the president nor his representatives having any involvement," the White House said.
Onyango, 56, has said she intends to fight the deportation order and hopes to remain in the United States. ICE has since said it is investigating whether any laws or rules were broken in the disclosure about Obama's aunt.
Mike Rogers, a spokesman for Onyango's immigration lawyer, said late Friday that Onyango remains in the country and her case is proceeding through the legal system. He did not know where in the U.S. she was or what court was handling her case.
Rogers said he met Onyango once, in November, and described her as a private, spiritual woman who remains strong despite legal, medical and financial difficulties.
"She's had a hard life but is not feeling sorry for herself," Rogers said. "She's strong for a woman who's been beaten up like she has by life." Of Obama, he said: "She's very proud of her nephew."
The government's Oct. 31 directive was "effective immediately and until further notice," and required that immigration agents obtain approval from ICE field office directors or deputy directors before arresting fugitives. An approval would depend on an internal review that would consider, among other issues, "any potential for negative media or congressional interest."
"A hold on any actions to proceed with arrest will be placed in the case file until I can review the case and evaluate the impact of the potential media or congressional interest," wrote the assistant field operations director for immigrant detention and removal.
Nantel said there was never any direction that officials should not take action on an enforcement issue. It clarified that potentially high-profile cases needed to be coordinated with the agency's senior officials.
The Homeland Security Department censored parts of the document before turning it over to the AP, citing privacy and law enforcement reasons for withholding some of the information, including the name of the person who sent the e-mail. It also blacked out the names of recipients of the directive, making it impossible to determine whether it was sent to anyone outside the department or outside government.
Obama's campaign said in October it was returning $260 that Onyango had contributed in small increments to Obama's presidential bid over several months. Federal election law prohibits most foreigners from making political donations. Onyango listed her employer as the Boston Housing Authority and last gave $5 on Sept. 19.
Onyango is part of Obama's large paternal family, with many related to him by blood whom he never knew growing up.
President Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr., left the future presidential nominee when the boy was 2, and they reunited only once — for a monthlong visit when the president was 10. The elder Obama lived most of his life in Kenya, where he fathered seven other children with three other wives. He died in a car crash in 1982.
President Obama was raised for the most part by his mother and her parents in Hawaii. He first met his father's side of the family when he traveled to Africa 20 years ago. He referred to Onyango as "Auntie Zeituni" when describing the trip in his memoir, saying she was "a proud woman."