Cylvia Hayes, Oregon's first lady, made a tearful admission Thursday that she engaged in a green-card marriage from 1997-2002 with an Ethiopian national, then 18, who paid her $5,000 in exchange for her wedding vows. Her disclosure came after Willamette Week, an alternative weekly newspaper in Portland, revealed the sketchy relationship and the fact that she's been married and divorced three times. Hayes is engaged to Governor John Kitzhaber, a Democrat who is seeking a fourth term in November, but the pair have been together for 10 years and he refers to her as the state's first lady. The couple insists that Kitzhaber didn't know about the cash for vows relationship until Thursday.
Hayes was 29 years old when she married the 18-year-old immigrant, identified as Abraham B. Abraham, now a resident of suburban Washington, D.C. Willamette Week was able to verify the fact that the two never lived together, a fact that was apparently lost on the DHS officials who granted Abraham his green card before the couple divorced in 2002.
Hayes admitted wrongdoing but claimed in her statement to the Oregonian on the matter that she "was struggling to put myself through college and was offered money in exchange for marrying a young person who had a chance to get a college degree himself if he were able to remain in the United States." And indeed, according to press reports, Abraham got his degree. But I think Hayes is trying to take advantage of how ill-informed most Americans are about U.S. immigration law here. Foreigners do not need a green card in order to study in the United States, all they need is a student visa, and so the notion that she came to the rescue to give him a chance to study is dubious.
The Oregonian concludes that Hayes likely won't face criminal or civil penalties, as the statue of limitations for entering into a green card marriage is five years. Abraham, on the other hand, could have his legal status revoked (it is not clear if he is a green card holder or a U.S. citizen now). I'm betting that this will not happen. As I wrote in my 2008 Backgrounder on green card marriages, once someone gains legal status, especially citizenship, DHS very rarely revokes it barring highly unusual circumstances, i.e. the person is a terrorist or has committed other very serious crimes.
If an alternative weekly newspaper in Portland can easily detect a fraudulent relationship many years after it happened, why couldn't DHS have sniffed it out at the time? I outlined all the reasons in the Backgrounder mentioned above, but, in a nutshell, it's a lot easier for someone sitting in a cubicle to rubber stamp immigration petitions than to investigate them. DHS doesn't have the manpower to thoroughly investigate the thousands of marriages Americans conduct with foreign nationals each year and it is hard and labor-intensive to prove that two people don't love each other.
Based on my experience as a consular officer, I think that green card marriage is the most common scam employed by foreign nationals who arrive in the United States on a tourist visa and don't want to go home. Until we devote more resources to investigating suspicious petitions and require couples to appear in person to face questions when initiating the paperwork, the problem will persist.
How will voters in Oregon judge Kitzhaber in November? The Willamette Week also disclosed this week that Hayes's consulting firm might have benefited from her role as first lady. The newspaper concluded that she is the most influential first lady in the state's history. But Kitzhaber is facing a conservative opponent, Dennis Richardson, who probably has little chance of winning in this blue state. If nothing else, the Hayes case shines a spotlight on a problem that is far more pervasive than most people realize.