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In reversal, Obama says he lived with uncle

President Obama acknowledged Thursday that he lived with his Kenyan uncle for a brief period in the 1980s while preparing to attend Harvard Law School, contradicting a statement more than two years ago that the White House had no record of the two ever meeting.

Their relationship came into question Tuesday at the deportation hearing of the president’s uncle, Onyango Obama, in Boston immigration court. His uncle had lived in the United States illegally since the 1970s and revealed for the first time in testimony that his famous nephew had stayed at his Cambridge apartment for about three weeks. At the time, Onyango Obama was here illegally and fighting deportation.

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On Thursday, a White House official said the press office had not fully researched the relationship between the president and his uncle before telling the Globe in 2011 that it had no record of the two meeting. This time, press office staff members asked the president directly, which they said they had not done in 2011.

“The president first met Omar Obama when he moved to Cambridge for law school,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “The president did stay with him for a brief period of time until his apartment was ready. After that, they saw each other once every few months, but after law school they fell out of touch. The president has not seen him in 20 years, has not spoken with him in 10.”

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Onyango Obama, President Obama's Kenyan-born uncle, arrived at US Immigration Court for a deportation hearing.

The White House said Onyango Obama’s immigration case was handled “without any interference from the president or the White House.”

The case raised numerous concerns about a potential conflict of interest after Onyango Obama’s arrest in August 2011 for drunken driving in Framingham. The arrest revealed outstanding deportation orders and his relationship to the president.

Shortly after his arrest, he told an officer, “I think I will call the White House.”

Onyango Obama is the second relative of the president’s father to face deportation to
Kenya since he took office.

Zeituni Onyango, Onyango Obama’s sister, won asylum in 2010 after a federal official disclosed days before the president’s historic election in 2008 that she was living illegally in the United States, in Boston public housing.

President Obama had written in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” that he had met Zeituni Onyango, his aunt. But his relationship with his uncle, nicknamed Omar, was less clear.

In November 2011, a White House spokesman told the Globe he had no record of the two ever meeting. The Washington Post had also reported that scholars believed the two had never met.

The White House never moved to correct the record, until the president’s fiercely private uncle took the witness stand in Boston immigration court two days ago.

Onyango Obama, now a 69-year-old liquor store manager in Framingham, said he had helped numerous students and had relatives in the United States, including his nephew, Barack Obama.

“It’s a good thing to let your nephew stay with you,” he said after the hearing, adding that in his family, “your brother’s kids are your kids as well.”

The president’s father, Barack Obama Sr., had helped Onyango Obama come to America in 1963 to attend an elite boys’ school in Cambridge. But Onyango Obama testified that he could not afford the tuition after the first year and graduated instead from public school in Cambridge. He said earned a degree in philosophy from Boston University, but the university would not confirm that.

On Tuesday, immigration Judge Leonard I. Shapiro granted Onyango Obama legal residency based on what he said was his good moral character and a section of federal law that allows him to get a green card because he arrived before 1972.

The president’s father and his family were rarely in the president’s life. Obama Sr. died in a car crash in 1982. The president was raised by his mother’s family.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti
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