Representing Obama’s Aunt

Scott Bratton and his fight to keep the president’s relative from being deported

Published in 2011 Ohio Rising Stars — January 2011

The day after the 2008 presidential election, Scott Bratton walked out of an immigration courtroom to find his cell phone exploding with messages. His boss, Margaret Wong, was trying desperately to reach him. It seemed that Zeituni Onyango, President-elect Barack Obama’s half-aunt from Kenya, was facing a deportation order.

And she was at their office, right now. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get the case reopened,” Bratton recalls Wong saying.

Meanwhile, he had to catch a train. “I actually did research on the case on Amtrak on the way to New York for another case,” says Bratton, 40, a partner at Margaret W. Wong & Associates in Cleveland, where he has worked since 2001.

Here’s what had happened: Days before the election of Onyango’s famous nephew, news leaked—creating a media flurry—that she was in the country illegally. Onyango had been denied asylum in 2004, but never returned to her native Kenya.

“She was very nervous and upset,” says Bratton of his first meeting with her. “She didn’t want to be in the spotlight. She didn’t want to be the person taking [attention] away from Barack.” Plus, she had that deportation order. “At that point, immigration officials could have picked her up and tried to execute it,” Bratton says.

He became the lead attorney on the case. “I can say that one of the issues was that her first attorney [from the 2004 asylum hearing] didn’t do a good job,” he says. “[Onyango] didn’t understand what happened with her case before, because nobody really explained it to her.”

He filed a motion to reopen the case, arguing that Onyango should have the opportunity to apply for asylum again based on circumstances that his research had uncovered, as well as the possibility that her original attorney hadn’t handled the case properly.

Onyango was granted a hearing in February 2010. As with many of his asylum clients, Bratton enjoyed the time he spent with Onyango, listening to her story and gathering the facts. “There are a lot of things that happened to her in the past,” he says. “But she’s got a great personality. Obviously, she talked about the president and her family, but the time that I spent with her was mostly in preparing her case.”

The hearing was no foregone conclusion. “They had an excellent government attorney that really fought the case,” he says. “The most satisfying part was hearing Onyango’s testimony. She came into court and she was confident that day and she really did a great job in presenting herself.”

In May 2010, the immigration judge issued a 30-page decision granting Onyango asylum. A media frenzy ensued. “They thought maybe the president had some involvement in the case,” Bratton says. He got some nasty e-mails and calls, but says: “Those of us who actually participated in the case know that [Obama] has stayed out of it.”

Bratton didn’t start out in immigration law. He co-founded a criminal defense firm right out of law school; but, moved by cases involving immigration, he decided to join Wong’s firm in 2001.

In another big case, Bratton won an appeal last February (2010) that helped expand the grounds for seeking asylum. His Algerian client had been beaten and sexually abused in his homeland by police who thought he belonged to an anti-government group. The man fled to the U.S., but his request for asylum was denied, in part because the lower court ruled that persecution for suspected affiliation with an anti-government group wasn’t grounds for asylum. The reversal at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals expanded the definition of the legal term “imputed political opinion.” It also established that sexual abuse can constitute persecution.

“I think the cases that I like the best,” he says, “are probably at the circuit court, because it’s the last chance. And the cases where you get published decisions, because you’re able to help people [beyond your client].”

Bratton has had at least 10 published opinions from successful cases, including a frequently cited Falun Gong asylum case in the 7th Circuit. The court found that all followers of this spiritual movement are subject to persecution in China. “Judges often think that a person can hide and practice their religion without being persecuted,” says Bratton. “This is an important decision showing that people should not be denied asylum simply because they may be able to hide and practice religion in private.”

Bratton is also on the executive board of the C. Lyonel Jones Pro Bono Immigration Committee, which pairs immigrants who need legal assistance with volunteer attorneys. And he plays mentor to those fresh in the field. It all adds up: He commits 12 to 14 hours a day to immigration law. Still, he has no regrets about switching practice areas.

“It’s the best decision I ever made.”

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