Instead, Zeituni Onyango stayed, living for years in public housing.
Now, in a case that puts the president in a tough position both personally and politically,Onyango's request is being reconsidered under a little-used provision in U.S. immigration rules thatallows denied asylum claims to be reheard if applicants can show that something has changed tomake them eligible.
Such as the ascension of her nephew to the presidency of the world's most powerful country. "If she goes back to Kenya, she is going to be much more in the limelight, and that, in and of itself,could put her at a greater risk. The chances of her going back and keeping a low profile are gone atthis point," said Boston immigration attorney Ilana Greenstein.
Onyango, 56, the half-sister of Obama's late father, moved to the United States in 2000. Her firstbid for asylum was rejected, and an immigration judge ordered her deported in 2004; she continuesto live in public housing in Boston.
In December, a judge agreed to suspend the deportation order and reopen her case. An initialhearing is scheduled Wednesday in U.S.
Immigration Court in Boston.
Obama has said repeatedly that he didn't know his aunt was living in the United States illegallyand believes that laws covering the situation should be followed. If she wins asylum, he could looksoft on immigration enforcement. If she loses, he could face criticism from immigrant advocacygroups.
The White House says Obama is staying out of it.
"The President believes that the case should run its ordinary course, and neither he nor hisrepresentatives have had any involvement," spokesman Ben LaBolt said last week.
Over the past decade, relatively few Kenyans have sought asylum in the United States: 343 throughimmigration courts in the fiscal year 2008, compared with 9,250 asylum requests from China and6,424 from El Salvador. Only 60 Kenyans were granted asylum that year through immigrationcourts.
From the fiscal years 1999 through 2008, about 20 percent of Kenyans who applied throughimmigration courts were granted asylum, according to an Associated Press review of immigrationrecords.
People who seek asylum must show that they face persecution in their homeland on the basis ofreligion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.
Onyango's reasons for seeking asylum have not been made public, and her immigration hearing willbe closed at her lawyer's request.
Kenya has been fractured by violence in recent years. In 2008, more than 1,000 people were killedin the East African nation following a disputed presidential poll, which saw a Luo candidate, RailaOdinga, declared loser to President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, the largest tribe in Kenya.
Since Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, periodic tensions have arisen among theLuos -- Onyango's tribe -- and some of Kenya's other tribes, including the Kikuyus.
J. Patrick Kelly, an international law professor at Widener University, said the United Statesviews Kenya as fairly stable.
The country acts as a regional diplomatic and economic hub and hosts the only headquarters for aUnited Nations agency outside the West, the U.N. Environment Program.
Onyango could improve her chances of winning asylum if she can argue successfully that some inthe Kenyan government may perceive -- because of her relationship with Obama -- "that she mayhave some level of political power and be able to transfer that power" to her tribe, Kelly said.
Onyango's lawyer, Margaret Wong, may also argue that she needs to stay in the United States formedical reasons. Onyango, who has been photographed walking with a cane, has some kind of aneurological problem, said Mike Rogers, Wong's spokesman.
In his memoir, "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," Obama affectionatelyreferred to Onyango as "Auntie Zeituni" and described meeting her during his 1988 trip to Kenya.
Onyango has not responded to requests for interviews. Her case is being closely watched by peopleon all sides of the immigration debate. Some critics say her status has already damaged thepresident's credibility on immigration issues.
"The president's moral authority has been compromised by his aunt's situation," said Dan Stein,president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Americans have the right to expectaliens to respect our law, to leave when they are supposed to and not thumb their nose at the legalsystem." But immigrant advocates say opponents are unfairly using Onyango's case as politicalfodder.
"Whether it's the president's aunt, my aunt or your aunt -- anybody who's seeking asylum isseeking that status for a very important reason," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the NationalImmigration Forum. "We are always worried that a person whose asylum claims are rejected, thatthey end up in a situation where they are a victim of violence."