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The questions about Melania Trump’s parents’ immigration status, explained

Things seem different when the immigrants are from Slovenia.


Melania Trump was born in Slovenia, first came to the United States in the mid-1990s, got a green card in 2001, married Donald Trump, and eventually became the first immigrant first lady. Her ascension would be an inspiring immigrant success story if not for the fact that her husband’s brief political career has been dominated from the beginning by anti-immigrant demagoguery, which soaks his wife’s story in accusations of hypocrisy.

The most recent flare-up involves Melania’s parents, Viktor and Amalija Knavs, who appear to currently live in the United States, where they are very engaged with the care and rearing of their grandson Barron Trump.

This would not ordinarily be a particularly noteworthy situation. (Michelle Obama’s mother lived in the White House throughout the duration of the Obama administration, primarily to help with the kids.) But the Trump administration has specifically made an effort to bar US citizens from sponsoring visas for their parents a centerpiece of its immigration policy efforts.

That’s naturally led to questions about whether Viktor and Amalija are here on the kind of visa Trump wants to kill — questions that the White House has somewhat oddly declined to answer.

The reticence to speak about the issue is likely linked to lingering unanswered questions about Melania’s immigration history — in particular, reporting from November 2016 by Alicia Caldwell of the Associated Press that suggests Melania may have worked illegally while in the United States on a tourist visa.

More broadly, the irony-laden situation in which an anti-immigration president has an immigrant wife is a stark reminder of the racial element to Trump’s thinking about immigration.

What’s up with Melania’s parents?

As Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post explains, there are two main possibilities for the Knavses’ visa status:

  • They might be in the US as legal permanent residents on an IR-5 visa as parents of an adult US citizen.
  • Because they appear to be here in a grandparental capacity rather than working, they also might be here on an extended tourist visa.

If they are here on a tourist visa, it’s a little difficult to see why the White House wouldn’t just say that. The Trump administration hasn’t proposed any changes to tourist visas. And if the Knavses are in the US with their family for the long term on a tourist basis, that might bolster the White House’s argument that there’s no compelling need to let citizens sponsor permanent residency visas for their foreign-born parents.

But if Melania’s parents are here on IR-5 visas, the White House’s proposal to kill this category of visa is renewed as a topic of political discussion. On an immigration policy call with reporters held Wednesday morning, a White House official answered a question about the Knavses by saying that while they were “not going to get into specific cases,” it was a “fallacy” to think that “just because a policy was in place in the past means it should continue indefinitely into the future.”

That’s not an unreasonable answer, per se. Obama, for example, availed himself of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for high-income households even while advocating that those tax cuts be rolled back. But the fact that the Knavses are living here, something seemingly harming no one, does raise the question of why it’s so important to kill the visa. It also serves as a reminder of unanswered questions about Melania’s immigration status.

Melania Trump may have worked illegally on a tourist visa

What’s clear is that Melania Knauss (she Germanized her last name when she began working as a European fashion model) originally entered the United States on a B1/B2 tourist visa in August of 1996 — a kind of visa that allows a person to stay in the United States for up to six months, and to engage in a limited number of business activities, but not to actually work in the United States.

On October 18, 1996, she received an H-1B visa for skilled workers that allowed her to work legally in the United States. Five years later, she got a green card.

The question is what exactly happened between August and October of 1996, given evidence obtained by the AP suggesting that she was paid for 10 modeling assignments between September 10 and October 15. As Dara Lind has written for Vox, there are a couple of possible explanations here:

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.

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.

In either case, nobody on the Democratic side of the aisle is going to claim that Melania did anything that warrants severe punishment. But Democrats are calling for humane and generous treatment of a wide range of immigration law violations, while Trump has made the exact opposite of humane and generous treatment of immigration law violations the centerpiece of his policy approach.

What problem, exactly, is Trump trying to solve?

Underlying all of this is the strong suspicion among Trump’s critics that racism is at the core of his immigration policy.

Trump has a long history of racist statements and actions, and at a now-infamous White House meeting, he reportedly told senators that he didn’t want people from “shithole countries” coming here and that the United States should, instead, seek immigrants from places like Norway.

That was not a commentary about the overall volume of legal immigration, the balance of skills versus family ties as entry criteria, or the precise labor market impact of immigrant flows. Instead, he seemed to be expressing a form of disgust at African and Latin American immigration in contrast to European immigration.

That Trump does not seem especially outraged about violating the terms of a visa or alarmed by “chain migration” when the visa violator and chain migrants are all white people from Slovenia underscores that suspicion.

The White House’s inability to produce clear answers and documentation of what has been going on with the Knauss/Knavs family is part of a much larger pattern of dishonest and non-transparent dealings. The dealings have inspired a whole range of perfectly ordinary questions about the Trump team, on everything from who knew what when about now-disgraced former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, to who knew what when about now-disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to why exactly the president leaked secret Israeli intelligence to Russia’s foreign minister, and beyond.

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