NPR logo Oregon First Lady Sorry For 'Marriage Of Convenience' With Green Card Seeker

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Oregon First Lady Sorry For 'Marriage Of Convenience' With Green Card Seeker

Cylvia Hayes, fiancee of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, cries as she speaks at a news conference in Portland, Ore., on Thursday. Hayes admitted she violated the law when in 1997 she married an immigrant seeking to retain residency in the United States. Gosia Wozniacka/AP hide caption

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Gosia Wozniacka/AP

Cylvia Hayes, fiancee of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, cries as she speaks at a news conference in Portland, Ore., on Thursday. Hayes admitted she violated the law when in 1997 she married an immigrant seeking to retain residency in the United States.

Gosia Wozniacka/AP

In 1997, Cylvia Hayes, now Oregon's first lady, received about $5,000 to marry an Ethiopian man who wanted a green card. At a tearful news conference in Portland, Ore., Hayes said Thursday that she had made a "serious mistake" in what was a "difficult and unstable period" in her life.

"I want to be clear today — I was associating with the wrong people," she said in a statement read at the news conference. "I 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."

The hastily called news conference followed a story in the Willamette Week. The newspaper reported:

"In 1997, King County, Wash., marriage records show, Hayes married a teenage Ethiopian immigrant 11 years younger than she. It's not clear why Hayes entered into the marriage and why she has kept it secret. However, public records raise questions about whether the marriage was legitimate or whether it was a way to help the young man with his immigration status."

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News stories have identified the man as Abraham B. Abraham. He was 18 at the time. Hayes was 29. The story noted that they filed for divorce in 2001. Hayes said that she and Abraham met only a handful of times and never lived together. She said they have not had any contact since the divorce was finalized.

Hayes called the marriage "wrong then and it is wrong now," adding, "I am here today to accept the consequences, some of which will be life changing."

Hayes and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, aren't married, but have been together for 10 years. The governor's office refers to Hayes as first lady.

In her statement Thursday, Hayes said she did not tell Kitzhaber about the marriage until the story broke.

"This is the most painful part for me. John Kitzhaber deserved to know the history of the person he was forming a relationship with. The fact that I did not disclose this to him meant that he has learned about this in the most public and unpleasant way," she said. "This is my greatest sorrow in this difficult situation."

So-called green card marriages are illegal under federal law. But the Oregonian quotes local immigration official Philip Hornik as saying an investigation is more likely when there are "fresh tracks." Here's more:

"The statute of limitation for criminal penalties is five years from the marriage date, meaning Hayes' deadline passed in 2002. There's no limitation on civil penalties, however. Hayes is likely safe from legal repercussions, yet immigration officials have the power to revoke a given status from immigrants who benefit from such deals."

That could affect Abraham, who news reports say later earned a degree in math from Greensboro College in North Carolina and now lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Political pundits interviewed by the Oregonian said they doubted the story would hurt Kitzhaber, who is seeking a fourth term against state Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Republican.