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Obama's Uncle Gets Green Card Despite Legal Run-Ins

By Brett Snider, Esq. on December 04, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

President Obama's uncle won his battle for a green card on Tuesday, after a federal immigration judge ruled that 69-year-old Onyango Obama could remain in the United States permanently.

Judge Leonard Shapiro made his decision based on proof of Onyango's good moral character and a federal law granting green cards to immigrants who entered the country before 1972, reports Reuters. The decision was made in spite of Onyango's history of dodging immigration authorities, as well as his criminal record.

With so many undocumented Americans attempting the same thing, how did Obama's uncle get a green card?

Onyango's Immigration History

Onyango Obama immigrated from Kenya to the United States as a teenager in 1963 in order to attend school, reports Reuters. He remained after his visa (likely a student visa) expired in 1970. Obama's uncle was subsequently denied a green card when he applied in 1980.

According to government sources, Onyango was denied a green card for lying on his application about being employed, but he chose to stay in America -- for the next three decades -- despite being asked to leave.

He may have continued to elude immigration officials if it wasn't for his 2011 arrest for drunken driving in Massachusetts. Not only did he initiate a deportation process for himself, Onyango also told police he would "call the White House" after he was arrested.

Not only can DUI convictions make it harder to obtain legal citizenship in the future, they can also trigger mandatory deportations -- even for legal immigrants. Onyango's drunken driving charge was eventually dropped after a year of probation, but the deportation proceedings continued.

What Is 'Good Moral Character'?

An immigrant who has resided in the United States (illegally or not) since 1972 is eligible for permanent residency ("green card") if he or she is "a person of good moral character."

Defining "good moral character" is difficult, but there are many ways in which courts have found applicants to lack moral character, such as:

  • Performing acts involving lying or fraud,
  • Having substance abuse issues,
  • Having drug-related or aggravated felony convictions, or
  • Being sentenced to jail or prison for more than 180 days.

Despite Onyango's prior attempts to evade immigration enforcement and his DUI arrest, Judge Shapiro found Onyango to have "good moral character" for a green card -- perhaps due to his advanced age and physical state, reports Reuters.

Or, as some critics contend, because he's President Obama's uncle.

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