Was Melania Trump once an "undocumented immigrant"? FLOTUS forced to explain her immigration history again as critics circle
The first lady's immigration history is unknown to many. However, her legal status is once again under the media scanner amid the border family separation controversy.
President Trump's "zero tolerance" border policy, which has been deemed the primary reason for the 'separation of families' at the Mexico border, has given liberals another opportunity to raise questions about his wife, First Lady Melania Trump's legal immigration status, currently as well as at the time of her arrival to the United States.
Critics are wondering whether Melania was at one point undocumented and benefited from programs put in place by the previous government for such individuals. On Monday, the first lady's spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, had to once again deny allegations that Melania came to the States illegally, or took residence in the country without the necessary documentation.
On the same day, Newsweek approached Michael Wildes, an immigration attorney for the first lady and her immediate family, who reportedly did not respond immediately. Left-leaning immigration experts are once again raising questions about Melania's immigration background although her attorney had clarified and revealed all the details in the past.
The Associated Press ran a headline just days before the 2016 presidential election claiming that seven weeks prior to obtaining a work visa in October 1996, the first lady was paid over $20,000 for 10 modeling jobs in the United States.
In August 2016, Wildes told Univision that Melania got her green card "based on marriage" in 2001, however, there was no evidence of her being married before she tied the knot in 2005 with Donald Trump. Wildes then backtracked on his comment a month later, writing a letter to the TV station which said: “Mrs. Trump did not receive her green card through marriage. Rather, in 2000, she self-sponsored herself for a green card as a model of ‘extraordinary ability,’ and on March 19, 2001, she was admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident.”
Even then, 'experts' explained that it was unlikely that Melania qualified for the elite EB-1 program reserved for applicants with "an extraordinary ability" as she appeared mostly in ads and catalogs. Back in 2016, during a rally in North Carolina, presidential hopeful Donald Trump promised that his wife would hold a press conference to explain her immigration history and maintained that she “came in totally legally”.
"They said my wife, Melania, might have come in illegally. Can you believe that one?" Donald Trump said at the time. "Let me tell you one thing. She has got it so documented, so she's going to have a little news conference over the next couple of weeks. That's good. I love it. I love it."
Now, the liberals are upset that the conference never took place.
Melania found herself caught amid the controversy as bleeding hearts across the country complained about the treatment of migrant children at the border. Last week, the first lady released a statement via Grisham, saying she “hates to see children separated from their families." However, not so long after, she was the subject of another outrage when she wore a jacket emblazoned with the words “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” on her way to a child detention center in Boston.
The First Lady's immigration history: What we know so far
Melania, when she was still an aspiring model from Slovenia, came to the United States on a tourist visa. However, she never worked in the US illegally, according to a lawyer who was hired to review her immigration records. But Melania's decision to not release the said records left people wondering about her history.
During his presidential campaign, Trump made illegal immigration as one of the central pillars of his candidacy. He promised his support base that he would build a wall on the Mexican border and would deport the millions of illegal immigrants residing in the United States due to lack of border security enforcement.
When the New York Post published a compilation of nude photos of Melania that were taken during a photoshoot back in 1995, doubts were raised once again whether the first lady of the United States came to the country and worked illegally before she obtained an H1-B work visa in 1996.
In response to the uproar, Melania hired immigration lawyer Michael Wildes to review her immigration records. Wildes had previously worked for Trump's modeling agency and the Miss Universe pageant. In September 2016, the first lady had released a letter from an immigration attorney stating that she did not receive a green card through marriage.
“Rather, in 2000, Mrs. Trump self-sponsored herself for a green card as a model of ‘extraordinary ability,’ and on March 19, 2001, she was admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident,” wrote Wildes. “Based on this timeline, Mrs. Trump became eligible for citizenship in 2006, after five years of continuous permanent residence.”
Wildes' review of her records says that accusations that she worked illegally "are not supported by the record and are therefore completely without merit." Melania obtained a work visa in October 1996 following her entry into the states on a visitor visa in August 1996.
Melania had done the photo shoot in October itself, after obtaining the said work visa. The Post corrected their initial statement saying that the photo shoot had taken place in '95 after confirming with the photographer in an interview who said that the shoot was done only in '96.
The first lady had obtained four more one-year work visas one after the other as that was the maximum duration that could be obtained under U.S. agreement with Slovenia at the time. After years of hard work, Melania finally received her green card in 2001 when she became a permanent resident of the United States, applying as a model of "extraordinary ability."
Wildes said that he did not press Melania to provide information about what she was doing before 1996 as it was of no consequence. He said, "When I asked her why she went to the effort to go and get them, she indicated that she had to be poised to get jobs should they come in. I didn't ask how she spent the years. I was not there to know all the aspects of what she was doing."
The immigration lawyer said that Melania could have easily had meetings and scouted for work under a tourist visa. "She could come into America and talk potential work, that would not violate the visitor visa," he said. "She knew the fine line and never worked in a way that would have breached the visitor visa."
Wildes also acknowledged the fact that cover models were not necessarily poster-girls for abiding immigration laws, but in the case of Melania, it was a different story altogether.
He said, "It's definitely a loosey-goosey world, but not in her life. It's not in her DNA, and it's not in her history." In Melania's personal interviews, however, she has given a slightly different account of her history as an immigrant. "I followed the law the way it's supposed to be," she said on MSNBC in February 2016, reports The Washington Post. "I never thought to stay here without papers. I had a visa. I traveled every few months back to the country to Slovenia, to stamp the visa."
The modeling agent who first scouted Melania in Europe, Paolo Zampolli, said that he had sponsored her work visa.
"I'm 100[%] positive that she never worked here illegally. There was not a reason to do that," said Zampolli, who later would work for Trump's real estate company.
Usually, traveling back and forth every couple of months suggests a tourist visa and not the longer work visa, according to immigration experts.
A few days before the election in November, Associated Press conducted an investigation which revealed that Melania was “paid for 10 modeling jobs in the United States worth $20,056 that occurred in the seven weeks before she had legal permission to work in the country, according to detailed accounting ledgers, contracts, and related documents.”
She could hold meetings and look for work but could not actually work under her tourist status. However, Wildes told AP that “these documents, which have not been verified, do not reflect our records including corresponding passport stamps."
The article further noted that “it is highly unlikely that the discovery will affect the citizenship status of Mrs. Trump.”
Melania's father Viktor Knavs was formerly a member of the Yugoslav Communist Party and eventually became a very successful car salesman. Her mother Amilija Knavs used to be a pattern maker at a textile factory. Both are now retired in their old age. “The hyper-involved Slovenian grandparents currently live with their daughter and grandson in the Trump Tower penthouse and spend most weekends with the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago, or at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey,” Politico reported in June.
The White House initially refused to comment on their immigration status. “I don’t comment on her parents, as they live private lives and are not part of the administration,” said Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for Melania.
According to immigration experts, there are many possibilities which could define the immigration status of Melania's parents. One of them is a legal permanent residence, in which they could be in the country on an IR-5 visa - which entitles parents of US citizens to live as legal permanent residents. Many critics believe that this is the course most likely taken by her parents.
“If I were advising Trump, Melania’s parents would be admitted as immigrants as the immediate relative of a United States citizen if they were planning on moving here permanently, especially given the fact that there is talk to eliminate this basis for immigration,” said Matthew L. Kolken, a Buffalo immigration attorney.
When the Washington Post presented a possible list of immigration options to Grisham, she responded by saying, “None of those options apply.” Back in 2016, David Leopold, an immigration lawyer who served on the Democratic Party's platform committee said that there is an easy way to put the entire debate to rest. "There are plausible explanations for everything we know about her immigration history," said Leopold, talking about Melania's immigration history. "Which begs the question: Why won't the Trump campaign simply show the American people the relevant immigration paperwork?"
Having said that, Wildes said that whether Melania wants to release her immigration documentation or not is purely her choice.