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Melania Trump’s sketchy immigration history, explained

If a new Associated Press report is right, Melania Trump herself was once an “illegal” immigrant.

Melania Knauss (now Trump), posing. Gregory Pace/FilmMagic

Would President Donald Trump have deported his own wife?

The Associated Press has found documentation showing that Melania Trump broke immigration law when she first came to the US in 1996 — by entering the country on a tourist visa and then working as a professional model.

It’s an ironic twist for a presidential campaign that’s marked itself by casting aspersions on immigrants in general, and “illegal” immigrants in particular, for the past 17 months.

The AP’s revelations probably won’t sway Donald Trump’s supporters in the waning days of the campaign. And while technically under immigration law Melania’s citizenship could be revoked if the government found she’d committed visa fraud to come here, it’s extremely unlikely that that’s going to happen.

Immigration policy is extremely complicated; the line between “legal” and “illegal” isn’t always visible. Melania appears to have entered the US legally and then worked illegally. If anything, that should give pause to anyone who believes her husband and other politicians who claim that unauthorized immigration can be remedied by building a wall at the border, or fixed easily at all.

Melania Trump’s immigration history, explained

Melania Trump came to the US in the mid-1990s to work as a model. But the specifics of her arrival, and the specific immigration status she had before getting a green card in 2001, were always unclear — and have provoked a great deal of speculation about whether she was really a “legal immigrant” for the entire time she lived in the US.

The AP’s reporting doesn’t answer all the questions that have been raised about Melania’s immigration status, including how she got her green card in 2001. But it does establish a clear timeline for how she came to the US to begin with. (Lawyers affiliated with the Trumps dispute the AP article, saying its documents don’t “reflect our records” — but the Trumps have never released any documents related to Melania’s status themselves.)

According to the AP, Melania Knauss (her maiden name) first came to the US in August 1996 on a B1/B2 “tourist visa.” Tourist visas allow someone to stay in the US for six months, but they can’t seek employment in the US during that time.

Then on October 18, 1996, the AP found, she got an H-1B visa for “skilled workers” allowing her to work legally in the US as a model.

The problem is that the AP’s documentation shows that Melania was “paid for 10 modeling assignments between September 10 and October 15” — while she was still on the tourist visa. In other words, she was working on a visa that didn’t legally permit her to work — and thus was violating the terms by which she’d been allowed to come to the US.

Melania could have committed visa fraud — or she could have been duped by unscrupulous employers

To be clear: Melania Knauss didn’t enter the US illegally. But she did, if the AP’s reporting is correct, violate immigration law.

Technically, she violated her tourist visa the minute she engaged in employment for pay in the US. But it’s possible that she didn’t know that.

B-visas are often issued to “temporary business visitors” — who are here for “business activities” but not allowed to work. It’s for people who are going to professional conferences, for example, or networking with associates — or even negotiating a contract for future employment. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services website explains that activities under a business visitor visa “must be directly connected with and part of your work abroad.”

Legally, working for pay for a US company is a clear violation of the terms of that visa, but it’s not exactly intuitive that someone coming on a business visa, especially if she’d been working as a model in Europe, wouldn’t be allowed to work.

This summer, when questions about Melania’s immigration status first came up, a Politico article cited a labor standards advocacy group’s claim that “[i]t was a common practice in the 1990s in New York for less scrupulous agencies to bring in foreign models to work illegally on temporary business and tourist visas.” If Melania Trump was on the same sort of visa as everyone else she worked with, it’s totally possible that she was simply being misled as to its legality.

Then again, it is also entirely possible that Melania knowingly committed visa fraud; that, in fact, she lied to US immigration officials when entering the country in August 1996 about her intentions to work while in the US. That’s not just an immigration violation but an outright federal crime.

Donald Trump whispering in the ear of then-girlfriend Melania Knauss (now wife Melania Trump) in 1999. Ron Galella/WireImage via Getty

Either way, in order for Melania to have gotten a green card and then US citizenship, she would have had to attest that she hadn’t violated immigration law before — something that now appears to be untrue.

If the US government really wanted to, it could use the AP’s reporting to launch an investigation into whether Melania Trump deliberately misrepresented her immigration history when she sought US citizenship. It could even try to strip her of it.

It probably won’t. As the AP wrote, “The government effectively does this in only the most egregious cases, such as instances involving terrorism or war crimes.”

The fact of the matter is that not all violations of immigration law are equally serious. The federal government understands that, and conserves its resources accordingly. Melania Trump’s husband may not always understand it, but that’s the way the world works.

The problem isn’t Melania Trump — it’s a system that even Melania Trump can’t navigate

Ostensibly, the reason that Melania Trump’s immigration status 20 years ago is politically relevant is that it exposes her husband’s hypocrisy — which should, hypothetically, be a political liability for him. He says illegal immigrants should all be deported — but, according to this report, his own wife once worked illegally in the United States.

Yet Trump’s supporters tend to care less about an immigrant’s legal status than about whether she embraces US culture and values. If they liked Melania before, knowing she was an immigrant, it’s not obvious that they’ll start freaking out about her now.

What’s more interesting is that the scrutiny of Melania Trump actually undermines one of the core assumptions that Trump and his supporters have about the immigration system: that it’s perfectly clear who’s “legal” and who’s not, and that if you’re violating immigration law it must be out of malice. Neither of those things is true.

The scrutiny that Melania is facing, belatedly, is something that many immigrants and visa holders are entirely too familiar with. They’re used to having every detail of their pasts raked over — and having any inconsistency or mistake held up as evidence of fraud. Usually, it’s at the hands of the federal government.

I’ve seen Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutors accuse asylum seekers of making up their entire stories — simply because they said at one point that something happened in 1993 and at another point that it happened in 1994. And most immigrants have fewer resources to make their case than the Trumps do.

Immigration law is incredibly hard to understand and even harder to comply with. That’s a very good reason not to pass laws that require government agents to be able to determine at a glance whether someone is “legal” or not — or deprive immigrants of a judicial hearing to sort out their status.

In other words, it’s a good reason not to automatically subject millions of immigrants to deportation and try to round up as many of them as possible without a chance to examine their cases — as Donald Trump has promised to do.

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