It’s a scenario many immigrants confronted by the byzantine American immigration system joke about: They should get married for a green card, they might quip to a friend over a few beers.
But for Oregon’s first lady, Cylvia Hayes, it was no joke—and the revelation of her sham marriage has sent shockwaves through the state’s political circles.
Hayes is engaged to Gov. John Kitzhaber, currently running for his fourth term. She also serves as his adviser on energy and economic development issues.
An alternative newspaper, the Willamette Week, reported Wednesday that Hayes married an Ethiopian immigrant in 1997, when she was 29. It was her third marriage, resulting in a divorce after four years and three months.
Shortly after the report, the governor’s fiancée copped to accepting $5,000 for entering a fraudulent marriage with the 18-year-old immigrant.
“It was wrong then and it is wrong now, and I am here today to accept the consequences, some of which will be life changing,” she told the press, according to The Oregonian. “And I cannot predict what direction this will go.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services could not immediately provide The Daily Beast with statistics illustrating the frequency of marriage fraud, but a previous ABC News report indicated that between 2007 and 2009 USCIS uncovered more than 600 fraudulent green card applications for a foreign spouse. (For reference, in 2009 alone 227,000 foreign nationals received a green card by means of marriage.)
The crime of marriage fraud is a felony and carries with it a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000—a point that is listed prominently on the form that Americans sign when they apply for their spouse to obtain a green card.
But Hayes’s admission may result in more shock than substance: Immigration lawyer Paul Herzog told The Daily Beast that it is uncommon for run-of-the-mill marriage fraud cases to be prosecuted, even if the statute of limitations hasn’t passed. Prosecutors generally just target organized green card fraud rings, he said.
“It’s pretty rare for casual people to get prosecuted. I rarely see anything being done to them,” Herzog said. “This is pretty small beer, and U.S. attorneys have lots of things on their plate…why would they waste the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s time prosecuting this particular individual?”
Even if the government were inclined to prosecute, the statute of limitations for marriage fraud is five years, meaning Hayes is likely safe from criminal liability.
Although the governor and Hayes are not yet married, he has played up his association with his adviser and fiancée, referring to her as the state’s first lady. But in solidly Democratic Oregon, the political fallout from this revelation is likely to be limited. The most recent Real Clear Politics polling average has Kitzhaber leading Republican challenger, Dennis Richardson, by 9.4 percentage points.
If anything, the marriage exposé could obscure a less lurid but more troubling story the Willamette Week published earlier this week, about a possible conflict of interest between Hayes’s work in the governor’s office and her other work as a paid policy consultant.
“As a public official, records show, Hayes has pushed for economic and energy policies while accepting payments from private advocacy groups seeking to influence those same policies,” the Week reported.