In 2016, when it looked like Ilhan Omar stood a good chance of becoming the first Somali-American elected to the Minnesota state House of Representatives, rumors swirled that she had married her brother in an illegal effort to facilitate his obtaining U.S. citizenship status.
Omar did win a seat in Minnesota’s House of Representatives, and two years later she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Like her peer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), Omar is young, outspoken, and champions progressive politics. And also like Ocasio–Cortez, Omar has been a frequent subject of unfounded rumors (particularly ones that have targeted her family and religious background).
The rumor about Omar’s brother that surfaced during her 2016 Minnesota campaign followed her as she assumed her new leadership role representing Minnesota’s 5th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019:
ILHAN OMAR SHARES HER EXTREMISTS VIEWS IN RARE 2013 VIDEO…
DOCUMENTS SHOW SHE MARRIED HER BROTHER IN IMMIGRATION SCHEME TO ACQUIRE A GREEN CARD…
WHAT ELSE IS SHE HIDING? pic.twitter.com/v3VKm3ysLr
— STRANGER THAN FICTION NEWS (@jonrohnson) February 14, 2019
The origin of the rumor captured in the above tweet is spotty. The claim first appeared in 2016 as an anonymous, since-deleted post on SomaliSpot, an online discussion forum geared toward the Somali community. Despite being unverified, the post was picked up by Powerline, a blog that “features commentary on the news from a conservative perspective,” who reported in a 12 August 2016 post that:
A reader has written us to point out that the Somali website Somalispot posted information suggesting Omar’s involvement in marriage and immigration fraud. The post notes that Omar married Ahmed Hirsi in 2002. Hirsi is the father of Omar’s three children. Omar is depicted with Hirsi and their children on Omar’s campaign website here.
The post further notes that Omar married her brother Ahmed Nur Said Elmi in 2009, implying that the latter marriage assisted his entry into the United States. Her brother was a British citizen. “As soon as Ilhan Omar married him,” the post continues, “he started university at her [a]lma mater North Dakota State University where he graduated in 2012. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Minneapolis where he was living in a public housing complex and was later evicted. He then returned to the United Kingdom where he now lives.”
In response to the rumor, Omar issued a statement in 2016 describing the issue as one based on “a difficult part of my personal history that I did not consider relevant in the context of a political campaign,” and she labeled accusations that her former husband was also her brother “absurd and offensive.”
Omar asserted that she applied for a marriage license with her current spouse, Ahmed Hirsi, when she was 19 years old in 2002, but the couple never completed the application process for a civil marriage. Instead, Omar maintained, she and Hirsi were married in their Muslim “faith tradition.”
In 2008 Omar and Hirsi reached an “impasse” in their relationship and separated (again under Muslim custom). In 2009, Omar engaged in a civil marriage with Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, a British citizen, but they separated in 2011 (without obtaining a legal divorce), and Elmi returned to England.
In 2017, Omar formally petitioned for divorce from Elmi, whose last known location — according to Omar’s statement as recorded in Minnesota court records — was in London as of 2011. Also in 2017, Omar reconciled with Hirsi, and they officially wed in 2018. (Omar and Hirsi have three children together, two born during their initial relationship, and a third born in 2012).
We found no public records or credible sources contradicting Omar’s account of her past, nor any substantive evidence corroborating claims that Elmi is her brother or that their marriage was otherwise fraudulent. In addition, some of the claims offered in support of the rumor don’t seem to add up.
According to Omar’s proffered version of events, she fled the Somalian civil war with her family in 1991 and lived for four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before immigrating to the U.S. in 1995. Omar’s mother died when she was 2, so she and her siblings were raised by her father and grandfather. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported just before the 2018 midterm elections that:
During an interview, Omar showed a reporter cellphone photos of documents from her family’s U.S. entry in 1995 after fleeing Somalia’s civil war. She declined to provide copies of the papers, which included refugee resettlement approval forms and identification cards, but they appeared to list her father, siblings and Omar by order of birth, with Omar as the youngest of seven children. No one named Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, who is three years younger than Omar, could be seen listed in the documents.
“For someone like me, who left a war-torn country at the age of 8, who got refugee status to come to America, where in the world am I finding a sibling 15 years, 20 years later to seek to do what people accuse me of?” Omar said.
Given that Omar and her siblings all came to live in the U.S. under identical circumstances as refugees, and that Omar herself became a naturalized U.S. citizen while still a minor, how did one of her siblings end up with such a radically different immigration status that she would have needed to marry him in order to facilitate his U.S. residency application?
Also, if Ahmed Elmi were truly Omar’s brother, why would he have needed to take the drastic step of marrying her in order to secure a path to U.S. citizenship? U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) policies qualify immigrants as eligible to apply for permanent residency status (and later become naturalized citizens) if they are the “spouse of a U.S. citizen” or the “brother or sister of a U.S. citizen.” Why would Omar commit a federal crime and risk a prison sentence (and possibly her own citizenship status) in order to provide her brother with the opportunity to apply for something he would already have been eligible to seek?
Elmi reportedly attended North Dakota State University with Omar between 2009 and 2012. But as a British citizen Elmi could have studied at any university in the European Union or European Economic Area, and in some of those countries his education would have been tuition-free. Was attending school in North Dakota instead such a priority as to merit committing marriage and immigration fraud and risking a fine of up to $250,000 and five years in prison?
If Elmi was so desperate for U.S. residency/citizenship status that he engaged in a sham “marriage” with his sister in order to seek it, why did he return to England after his split with Omar? And why is there no record of Elmi’s having applied for or obtained such status if that was the whole point of his supposedly “fraudulent” marriage to his alleged sister?
In August 2016, shortly after the rumor originally surfaced, then-U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota Andy Luger countered news reports by stating in a letter sent to an attorney retained by Omar that his office was not investigating criminal accusations related to these rumors. We found no evidence this circumstance has changed (although federal prosecutors generally do not publicly comment on investigations in progress or lack thereof).
Right-leaning blogs have made a sport of digging into Ilhan Omar’s personal history, sifting through public records and surfing through social media profiles of people believed to be associated with her, and in so doing they have inevitably surfaced some yet-unanswered questions. Why did Omar’s 2016 campaign literature reference Ahmed Hirsi as her “husband” when she hadn’t yet divorced Ahmed Elmi or married Hirsi? Why did Omar say in her 2017 divorce filing that she’d had no contact with Elmi since June of 2011 when she was seemingly photographed with him in London in 2015? Why has Elmi not put the matter to rest by coming forward and explaining the nature of his relationship with Omar?
Perhaps Ilhan Omar has something untoward related to her marriages that she’s covering up. Or maybe, like countless other people, she’s had a complicated romantic past that she’d rather not discuss publicly. The evidence uncovered thus far isn’t definitive enough to come down on one side or the other.
We sent a list of questions to Omar’s spokesman and Powerline but did not receive responses prior to publication.
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[Minneapolis] Star Tribune. 17 August 2016.
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The New York Times 30 December 2018.
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[Minneapolis] Star Tribune. 27 October 2018.