Gaps in Melania Trump's immigration story raise questions
Nude photographs published this week are raising fresh questions about the accuracy of a key aspect of Melania Trump’s biography: her immigration status when she first came to the United States to work as a model.
The racy photos of the would-be first lady, published in the New York Post on Sunday and Monday, inadvertently highlight inconsistencies in the various accounts she has provided over the years. And, immigration experts say, there’s even a slim chance that any years-old misrepresentations to immigration authorities could pose legal problems for her today.
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While Trump and her husband, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, have said she came to the United States legally, her own statements suggest she first came to the country on a short-term visa that would not have authorized her to work as a model. Trump has also said she came to New York in 1996, but the nude photo shoot places her in the United States in 1995, as does a biography published in February by Slovenian journalists.
The inconsistencies come on top of reports by CBS News and GQ Magazine that Trump falsely claimed to have obtained a college degree in Slovenia but could be more politically damaging because her husband has made opposition to illegal immigration the foundation of his presidential run.
Representatives of the Trump campaign and the Trump Organization did not address detailed questions about the timing and circumstances of Melania Trump’s arrival in the country, but campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks responded to the emailed questions by stating, “Melania followed all applicable laws and is now a proud citizen of the United States.”
Trump’s own statements suggest otherwise, immigration experts say.
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 Trump campaign and Trump Organization representatives did not address questions about the type of visa Trump first used to enter the country, but it has been widely reported that she came here on an H-1B work visa. Writer Mickey Rapkin, who interviewed Melania for a May profile in the luxury lifestyle magazine DuJour, said she confirmed as much to him. “When I interviewed Melania, I mentioned that she’d come to New York on that H-1B visa, and she nodded in agreement,” Rapkin wrote in an email to POLITICO.
Trump’s tale of returning to Europe for periodic visa renewals is inconsistent with her holding an H-1B 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.
If someone were to enter the United States on one of those visas with the intention of working, it could constitute visa fraud, according to Andrew Greenfield, a partner at the Washington office of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, a firm that specializes in immigration law.
“It's quintessential,” he said. “If you enter the United States with the intention of working without authorization and you present yourself to a border agent at an airport or a seaport or a manned border and request a visa, even if there is not a Q&A — knowing that you are coming to work — you are implicitly, if not explicitly, manifesting that you intend to comply with the parameters of the visa classification for which you sought entry and were granted entry."
“There are quirky exceptions to people on a B-1 visa who are able to work — certain domestic servants who are entering the country to accompany their employers who are in the country temporarily,” added Greenfield. “But I can’t imagine that would apply to models.”
“If Melania was traveling to the U.S. on a B-1 business visa, there is a potential problem,” said a Washington-based partner of a major national immigration law firm. “She would not have been authorized to work in the U.S. while on a B-1 visa. In fact, if a customs agent encounters someone entering the U.S. on a B-1 visa and they know that the individual intends to work for a U.S. employer, the individual will usually be denied admission. In order to avoid being sent back to Slovenia, she may have had to lie about the purpose of her trip.”
Visa fraud would call into question a green card application and subsequent citizenship application, said immigration lawyers — thus raising questions about Melania Trump’s legal status, even today, despite her marriage to a U.S. citizen.
Violations of U.S. visa law are hardly unusual, particularly in the modeling industry. It 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, according to Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, a group that advocates improved labor standards for fashion models.
The timing of Trump’s arrival in New York remains hazy, and representatives of the Trump campaign and Trump Organization did not address questions about that timing. In a previously unpublished portion of an April interview conducted for a profile in GQ, Trump told POLITICO’s Julia Ioffe that she lived with Matthew Atanian, her first known roommate in New York, only for a few weeks. “I was busy and I was traveling a lot. And then after that, after a month of two, I found my own place,” Trump said.
But in an interview for the same profile, Atanian told Ioffe that they shared the apartment for a period that spanned 1995 to 1996, and Atanian told POLITICO this week that he and Trump shared the apartment for a total of a year to a year and a half. He said he recalled Trump leaving the country to travel home for holidays during that period.
Trump has said she came to New York in 1996, but multiple reports indicate she first started doing work there in 1995. Her personal website was taken down last month in the wake of reports that its biography section falsely credited her with earning a college degree. (Trump tweeted that the website was taken down “because it does not accurately reflect my current business and professional interests.”) An archived snapshot of that bio page describes Trump as “settling in New York in 1996,” and she told Brzezinski in January, “I came to New York 1996.”
But according to “Melania Trump: The Inside Story,” a biography published in February by two Slovenian authors — journalist Bojan Požar and publicist Igor Omerza — Trump “began moving to New York in 1995.” The book also states that Trump first met a close friend, the model Edit Molnar, “in New York in the middle of 1995.”
“In 1995 she started coming to the USA according to the jobs she was getting at fashion agencies,” wrote Požar in an email to POLITICO. “We don’t know the exact dates of those before she officially settled in New York but her visits prior to that were temporary business opportunities that she had as a model.” Požar said he learned of these first jobs in America from two fashion agents, one in Italy and the other in Vienna, and that such trips abroad were common for Eastern European models but not “technically” legal.
Požar’s timing is consistent with the New York Post’s report. The nude photos were taken in New York in 1995 for the January 1996 issue of France’s now-defunct Max Magazine, according to the tabloid.
Alé de Basseville, the photographer who shot the photos, told POLITICO that the shoot took place in a private studio near Manhattan’s Union Square. He declined to name the owner of the studio and said that he encountered Trump through Metropolitan Models, a Paris-based agency with a New York office that was then representing Trump.
To carry out the 1995 New York photo shoot legally, Trump would have required a working visa, likely an H-1B, even if she were not yet living in the United States, as her native Slovenia was not part of the State Department’s visa waiver program until 1997.
Paolo Zampolli, an Italian businessman who was then a partner in Metropolitan and is credited with sponsoring Trump’s entry into the United States and introducing her to her future husband, said that he did not recall that particular shoot or the exact timing of Trump’s first arrival in New York.