from The Boston Globe July 7, 2011 (excerpted)
The elder Barack H. Obama, a sophomore at the University of Hawaii, had come under scrutiny by federal immigration officials who were concerned that he had more than one wife. When he was questioned by the school’s foreign student adviser, the 24-year-old Obama insisted that he had divorced his wife in his native Kenya. Although his new wife, Ann Dunham, was five months pregnant with their child - who would be called Barack Obama II - Obama declared that they intended to put their child up for adoption.
“Subject got his USC wife ‘Hapai’ [Hawaiian for pregnant] and although they were married they do not live together and Miss Dunham is making arrangements with the Salvation Army to give the baby away,’’ according to a memo describing the conversation with Obama written by Lyle H. Dahling, an administrator in the Honolulu office of what was then called the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.
From the early 20th century through the 1970s the Salvation Army operated nearly a dozen residential maternity homes throughout the United States, one of which was located in Honolulu. Residents who chose not to keep their babies were able to make arrangements to put them up for adoption through local agencies. The agency maintains records of its maternity homes but provides them only to birth mothers or children who request them, according to Kathy Lovin, public affairs manager for The Salvation Army’s western territory in Long Beach, Calif. Lovin declined to say whether Ann Dunham, who died in 1995, spoke with Salvation Army officials at all about the possibility of putting her child up for adoption.
Barack Obama Sr., on the other hand, would have had reason to worry that having a child in the United States could have significant consequences. For starters, Obama, who had two children in Kenya, was having severe financial problems. Although he told Dunham that he had gotten divorced from his Kenyan wife, he apparently did not tell her about his other children.
Obama was a member of the Luo ethnic group, the third largest of Kenya’s tribes, among whose members polygamy was common. His own father had at least four wives. In fact, Obama was still married to his Kenyan wife, Grace Kezia Obama, and apparently worried about the financial burden of another child.
Of greater concern was his immigration status. At the time that he made his statement about adoption in spring 1961, Obama was in the midst of applying to the INS for an extension of his stay in the United States. Although it was a routine process that was required of foreign students periodically, the application entailed an examination of the student’s academic record and general behavior.
Obama would have wanted to present a case that would impress immigration authorities. A bigamist with a mixed-race baby, if that is how authorities chose to see him, was not likely to be the strongest of candidates. As Gibbs assessed the elder Obama’s possible motive: “He was trying to convince immigration to let him stay. So, part of his effort was to convince immigration that some of the responsibilities that he had he would not continue to have.’’
University of Hawaii and federal immigration authorities were already alarmed about Obama’s relationships with women and perplexed as to his marital status. Since his arrival at the university in 1959, Obama had repeatedly failed to complete routine paperwork at UH’s foreign students office regarding his domestic status that would have clarified whether he had a wife in Kenya, according to an employee in the office who declined to be identified. Even the exact year of his own birth was unclear. Obama alternately reported to immigration and academic officials that he was born in both 1934 and 1936. Although the INS memo records the year of his birth as 1934, Obama’s family members and other records indicate that he was probably born in 1936.
When he married Dunham in February 1961, school administrators began to probe his status in earnest. Sumi McCabe, then UH’s foreign student adviser, first brought attention to the matter during a phone call to Dahling, the INS administrator, the following April. According to Dahling’s memo, “Mrs. McCabe further states that [Obama] has been running around with several girls since he first arrived here and last summer she cautioned him about his playboy ways. [Obama] replied that he would ‘try’ to stay away from the girls.’’ But he didn’t try very hard. Instead, he began dating the dark-eyed Ann Dunham.
Noting that Obama appeared to have a wife in Kenya and another in Hawaii, Dahling raised the possibility in his memo of charging Obama with polygamy or bigamy in order to get a deportation order against him. In the end, he suggested they keep an eye on him.
“Recommend that Subject be closely questioned before another extension is granted - and denial be considered,’’ Dahling concluded. “If his USC wife tries to petition for him, make sure an investigation is conducted as to the bona fide of the marriage.’’
As it turned out, the matter soon moved out of Honolulu administrators’ purview. The following year, Obama left his small family in Honolulu and headed to Harvard University to pursue a doctorate in economics. While in Cambridge, Obama would not only meet his third wife, but the question of how many wives he had would spiral into a confrontation with devastating consequences.
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