Aug. 5, 2016 – On June 16, 2015 Donald Trump sauntered out to the lobby of his Manhattan Tower, declared he was running for president and proceeded to slander Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. The casualties of Trump’s unabashed hate speech were the millions of hard-working undocumented immigrants who aspire to come out of the shadows and take their rightful place in the American family.
What Trump probably didn’t bank on was that his venomous tirades against immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants, would claim another casualty — his wife, Melania Trump, a Slovenian-born former model who had immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-90s.
As Politico and other major news outlets have been reporting, there are serious gaps in Melania Trump’s visa history which suggest she may have been gaming the immigration system, working in the U.S. without authorization and lying to immigration authorities. Surprisingly, while her husband’s nativist message has dominated news cycles since he viciously slandered Mexican immigrants (and countless others), to date very little has been written about Melania Trump’s immigration history. Earlier this year Nick Glass reported in Politico that Melania Trump defended her husband’s harsh immigration rhetoric, including his promise to ferret out and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants (along with their U.S. citizen children) and build a wall along the Mexican border. Ms. Trump’s reasoning was simple — “I followed the law”.
Well, it turns out, maybe not so much.
Politico reports that Melania Trump has claimed in numerous interviews that when she first arrived in the U.S. and began working she would return to Slovenia “every few months” to have her work visa re-stamped:
In a January profile in Harper’s Bazaar, Trump said she would return home from New York to renew her visa every few months. “It never crossed my mind to stay here without papers. That is just the person you are,” she said. “You follow the rules. You follow the law. Every few months you need to fly back to Europe and stamp your visa. After a few visas, I applied for a green card and got it in 2001.”
In a February interview with Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Trump repeated that characterization of her early years in the United States. “I never thought to stay here without papers. I had visa. I travel every few months back to the country to Slovenia to stamp the visa.
I came back. I applied for the green card. I applied for the citizenship later on.”
The problem for Ms. Trump is that her own words do not add up to her having a proper working visa. With very limited exceptions (none of which would seem to apply to Melania’s fashion modeling career), temporary work visas do not require people to leave the U.S. every few months for re-stamping abroad. Based on my experience as an immigration lawyer — and based on the experience of other immigration lawyers who spoke to Politico — Melania Trump seems to be describing the behavior of someone who’s entered the U.S. on a 3 or 6 month tourist or business visa; neither of which would have permitted Melania to work in the U.S.
This morning Melania responded to the Politico article on twitter:
“In recent days there has been a lot of inaccurate reporting and misinformation concerning my immigration status back in 1996. Let me set the record straight: I have at all times been in full compliance with the immigration laws of this country. Period. Any allegation to the contrary is simply untrue. In July 2006, I proudly became a U.S. citizen. Over the past 20 years, I have been fortunate to live, work and raise a family in this great nation and I share my husband’s love for our country.”
Unfortunately, her response fails to answer the key question of whether she worked in the U.S. in violation of the law. And that’s too bad, because Melania Trump could clear up all the murkiness surrounding her immigration history by simply releasing her immigration file.
“Trump’s tale of returning to Europe for periodic visa renewals is inconsistent with her holding an H-1B [work] visa at all times she was living in New York — even if it was the lesser-known H-1B visa specifically designed for models — said multiple immigration attorneys and experts. An H-1B visa can be valid for three years and can be extended up to six years — sometimes longer — and would not require renewals in Europe every few months. If, as she has said, Trump came to New York in 1996 and obtained a green card in 2001, she likely would not have had to return to Europe even once to renew an H-1B.”
Instead, Trump’s description of her periodic renewals in Europe are more consistent with someone traveling on a B-1 Temporary Business Visitor or B-2 Tourist Visa, which typically last only up to six months and do not permit employment.”
Critically, Melania, as a Slovenian could not simply have boarded an airplane, flown to the U.S. and began working. Like all immigrants, she would have first needed to obtain a proper U.S. work visa, not a tourist visa. Lying to U.S. consular officials or immigration officers to obtain a tourist visa to work or permanently immigrate to the U.S. has serious immigration consequences including ineligibility for a green card. Further, once an intending immigrant games the immigration system to get a visa there can be serious criminal and civil consequences years later if the fraud is not properly disclosed to U.S. authorities on a green card or citizenship application, including felony prosecution and loss of citizenship.
All this raises some critical questions about Melania Trump’s immigration history which hopefully the Trump campaign will answer: What visa did Melania use to come to the U.S.? Did she work in the U.S. without authorization? Did Melania lie any U.S. official to get a visa, her green card, or her citizenship?
These questions are important because Trump has made law and order, and in particular, law and order when it comes to immigration, a cornerstone of his campaign for the presidency. If he wins in November Trump has promised to tear up President Obama’s executive actions on deportations which temporarily protect immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, engage an deportation force to root out and deport undocumented families, and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. He has also railed against immigrants, such as Kazir and Ghazala Khan, Gold Star Parents, whose son, Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed while serving in Iraq as well as countless others. As Bloomberg News columnist Frank Wilkinson observed Wednesday:
“This topic might seem less worthy of investigation if her husband had not waged a lengthy crusade demanding to see various birth and education documents pertaining to President Barack Obama. In addition, the Trump campaign has dedicated itself to the proposition that anyone who has gamed the U.S. immigration system must be dealt with in the harshest terms.”
Sadly, Melania Trump’s immigrant story— including her murky visa history — presented a missed opportunity for Donald Trump. Like millions of other American families, it is now clear that Donald Trump’s family has also been personally touched by America’s dysfunctional immigration system. As Melania Trump certainly knows first hand, the rigid, unforgiving and archaic immigration system forces otherwise good people to do things they might not ordinarily do; like cross a border without authorization or lie to a visa officer to gain admission to the U.S. to get a chance at the American dream. Rather than demonize people — like his wife Melania Trump — who came to America seeking a better life for themselves and their children, Donald Trump could have made overhauling America’s unworkable immigration system — including protecting families from being torn apart — the cornerstone of his campaign.
The Trump family may be fabulously rich but all the wealth in the world cannot protect them, or those undocumented immigrants who silently toil in the shadows, from the wrath of a dysfunctional immigration system that tears apart families, prevents America’s business from maintaining its global advantage and locks up families fleeing unspeakable violence.
Donald Trump recently told a reporter that “As president … I would be very, very tough on the borders, and I would be not allowing certain people to come into this country without absolute perfect documentation.”
Trump’s campaign is premised on immigrant bashing and a willingness to tear families apart. His attacks now appear to implicate his own family.
David W. Leopold is the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). He has served as AILA’s top liaison to the Department of Homeland Security’s key enforcement bureaus and has testified as an immigration expert before the U.S. Congress. Mr. Leopold’s Cleveland, Ohio-based immigration, visa, and citizenship practice serves corporations, health care institutions, families, and individuals. www.davidleopoldnet