The scandal over Barack Obama's ‘Auntie Zeituni’ sparked a Department of Homeland Security investigation yesterday, after it emerged that the Democratic candidate's close relative was living illegally in the United States.
The woman, who lives in council housing in Boston and has made several donations to Obama's campaign, had been instructed to leave America four years ago by a judge who rejected her request for asylum from her native Kenya.
News of the affair prompted the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to refer the affair to Homeland Security, in an attempt to establish how confidential details regarding Ms Onyango's case were made public. “They are looking into whether there was a violation of policy in publicly disclosing individual case information,” said a spokesman. “We can't comment on individual cases.”
When Onyango's case hit the headlines at the weekend, several senior Democrats claimed it marked a “dirty tricks” campaign to discredit their candidate in the closing stages of the election campaign.
“Senator Obama has no knowledge of her status but obviously believes that any and all appropriate laws be followed,” said campaign strategist David Axelrod. “I think people are suspicious about stories that surface in the last 72 hours of a national campaign.”
The woman last spoke to the Democratic candidate two years ago, said campaign sources, and was also present at Mr Obama's swearing-in to the US Senate in 2004.
However the Illinois senator had no role in helping her gain the tourist visa for that trip - which she subsequently overstayed - and claims to be unaware of any subsequent details of her stay.
In a bid to kill coverage of the affair, the Obama campaign yesterday agreed to return $260 that Onyango had contributed in small increments over in recent months. According to records, she had last given $5 on September 19.
Although the Associated Press claimed ignorance of whether anyone in the Bush administration or McCain campaign had been involved in the release of details about Onyango, senior Democrats were unconvinced.
As soon as the story emerged, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers wrote to the Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, requesting an immediate investigation of the leak.
In his letter, he said it was “was not the first leak of law enforcement information apparently designed to influence the coming presidential election,” apparently referring to an ongoing investigation of voter fraud by the |Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
Meanwhile John McCain's campaign seemed reluctant to capitalise on Onyango's story. Official spokesmen declined to comment, while former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, told reporters: “I don't think families should be hounded [and] I don't think Barack Obama has anything to do with a relative being here illegally.”
Their reluctance to make capital may be partly due to the growing importance of immigration to tomorrow’s election. Hispanic voters, who favour reform of the US immigration system, will now be crucial to the outcome in several key swing states.
To the surprise of pundits, who predicted that Latinos would be reluctant to support a black presidential candidate, Obama is now leading McCain in polls of their community by a margin of 66 to 24 per cent. This could provide the difference between victory and defeat in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico.
At the weekend, the influential Cuban American National Foundation also backed Obama, an endorsement that could tip the outcome in the crucial state of Florida.
McCain's failure to exact support from the Latino establishment is partly thought to have stemmed from his decision to adopt a tough line on immigration.