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Originally published Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Staff: Obama unaware of aunt's illegal status

Responding to a report that a Kenyan relative of Sen. Barack Obama was living in the United States illegally, his campaign Saturday said that he had no knowledge of her immigration status and that "any and all appropriate laws" should be followed.

WASHINGTON — Responding to a report that a Kenyan relative of Sen. Barack Obama was living in the United States illegally, his campaign Saturday said that he had no knowledge of her immigration status and that "any and all appropriate laws" should be followed.

The woman, Zeituni Onyango, referred to as "Auntie Zeituni" in Obama's memoir, applied for political asylum in the United States in 2004, but a federal immigration judge rejected her request and instructed her to leave the country, said a government official who asked not to be identified.

Onyango's legal status was first reported by The Associated Press. It was unclear why her request was rejected.

Onyango, 56, is the half-sister of Obama's father and is part of an extensive network of paternal relatives with whom Obama has had limited contact, his aides said.

Obama, who was largely reared by his maternal grandparents in a modest apartment in Honolulu, first met Onyango when he traveled to Africa as an adult.

David Axelrod, chief strategist for Obama, on Saturday characterized the senator and Onyango as having "not a real close relationship." Axelrod said it had been "years, not months," since the two had spoken.

Onyango attended the ceremony when Obama was sworn in to the U.S. Senate in 2004, but campaign officials said he had provided no assistance in getting her a tourist visa and did not know the details of her stay.

Obama last heard from her about two years ago when she called to say she was in Boston.

Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for Republican nominee John McCain, said his campaign had no comment.

The Obama campaign said it was returning $260 that Onyango had contributed in small increments to Obama's presidential bid over several months. Federal election law prohibits foreigners from making political donations.

Onyango did not return messages left at her home.

In Boston, Lydia Agro, communications director for the Housing Authority, said Onyango had been screened and approved for public housing as an "eligible noncitizen" when she moved in in 2003. She said she did not know Onyango was related to Obama until two days ago.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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