President Obama acknowledged on Thursday that in the 1980s he lived with a Kenyan uncle who recently appeared in court facing deportation charges.
In January 2012, the White House said that the president had never met his uncle.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney admitted that the president had never been asked personally whether he met his uncle, Onyango Obama, who is nicknamed “Omar.” When the story reemerged this week, Carney asked the president.
“The president said that he, in fact, had met Omar Obama when he moved to Cambridge for law school, and that he stayed with him for a brief period of time until his — the president's apartment was ready,” Carney told reporters at the White House.
Obama’s uncle Omar was arrested in August 2011 in Massachusetts for drunk driving, which revealed a lapsed deportation order. After his arrest, Omar Obama told a police officer, “I think I will call the White House.”
Carney said that Obama has not seen his uncle in 20 years and not spoken to him in roughly 10 years. He said there was “absolutely zero interference” from the White House regarding his deportation case.
The revelations about Obama’s uncle — and the double talk from the White House — highlight the president’s personal connection to a contentious policy issue.
Deportations reached historic highs during President Obama’s first term, and the total number of removals is expected to reach 2 million by the end of the year.
The Senate passed immigration legislation in June that would have created a path to citizenship for many of the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. But similar legislation died in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The grim chances for a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system have led activists to refocus their attention on Obama.
Two weeks ago, an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco heckled the president, saying, “You have a power to stop deportation for all.”
“Actually, I don't. And that's why we're here,” Obama answered.
The president has already halted some deportations. In June 2012, Obama announced that qualifying young people would be eligible for deportation relief and work permits, through a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Some advocates say he could broaden that program to include people who have lived in the U.S. for years and who are primary caregivers.
Others say it's an abuse of power.
“The president obviously has the authority to use prosecutorial discretion, but not to abuse it,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for decreased legal and illegal immigration, told Fusion in November. “Granting status to entire classes of people, rather than using discretion as intended on a case-by-case basis, is the very definition of abusing prosecutorial discretion.”
The president’s uncle has fared better than many other immigrants caught in the deportation dragnet. On Tuesday, he was granted legal residency, despite outstanding deportation orders and an August 2011 drunk-driving conviction.
According to the Boston Globe, the judge said that Onyango Obama had good moral character and was eligible to apply for a green card since he arrived in the U.S. prior to 1972.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.