The Slatest

New Immigration Rules Would Have Made 1990s Melania Trump a Deportation Priority

Donald and Melania Trump in Palm Beach, Florida, on Feb. 4.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Nov. 4, the Associated Press reported that it had obtained documents showing that Melania Trump—then known as Melania Knauss or Knaus—had been paid for modeling work performed in 1996 while she was staying in the United States on a B1/B2 visitor visa. A lawyer representing Melania Trump said the documents were not familiar to him but did not otherwise challenge their veracity or deny that she had done the work, which would have violated the terms of the visitor visa (sometimes referred to as a “tourist visa”).

On Jan. 25, President Donald Trump issued an executive order prioritizing the deportation of a number of classes of individuals, among them those who have “engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency,” who hadn’t been considered top deportation targets under Obama. Department of Homeland Security documents released this week indicate that immigration officials are putting Trump’s instructions into practice. If Donald Trump had been president in the ‘90s, would the deportation of his future wife have been considered a priority for immigration officers?

Yes, say two immigration attorneys I spoke to. Hasan Shafiqullah, the deputy attorney in charge of the immigration law unit at the Legal Aid Society, said, “If the current executive order on interior enforcement and the related Homeland Security memoranda on interior enforcement had been in effect at that time, then she would have certainly been an enforcement priority.” New York City immigration specialist Cheryl David said that if Melania did in fact work while using a tourist visa, she “definitely violated her status, and if it came to immigration’s attention, yeah, they certainly could put her into removal proceedings.” (To be clear, Melania would have been subject to deportation if she’d been caught even in 1996. What President Trump is—ostensibly—doing is putting DHS resources toward removing individuals like Melania who’ve—allegedly—committed transgressions that previous administrations would’ve considered too minor to worry about.)

Melania’s violation could have come back to haunt her even though she went on to obtain an H-1B work visa on Oct. 18, 1996, become a legal permanent resident (or “green card” holder) in 2001, and become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2006. (She married Donald Trump in 2005.) At various points in that process, the fact that Trump/Knauss had violated her tourist visa could have gotten her in trouble. If she failed to disclose the violation in her H-1B application, that may have made her ineligible for the H-1B visa, and thus ineligible for the subsequent H-1B-based green-card status, which could then have been revoked. (It’s even technically possible to revoke someone’s citizenship for lying on their paperwork, but that would be extremely unlikely in a case as minor as this. There is also a waiver process by which Trump/Knauss could have formally asked the U.S. government to let her off the hook for earlier misrepresentations, but her immigration file isn’t public so we don’t know if she availed herself of it.)

David added that the likelihood of getting caught red-handed doing something like what Melania did—then or now—is fairly low. Such a tourist-visa violation is usually only discovered, David said, if the offender leaves the country and is then caught upon re-entry by a border official who, for instance, finds pay stubs in his/her luggage or sees work contacts on his/her smartphone. Even so, the attorney added, “wealthier-looking people” like Melania—who’d already been modeling in Europe before coming to the U.S.—usually aren’t carefully scrutinized for potential deportation. Under a Trump administration crackdown, though, perhaps that will change. After all, the POTUS has said, if immigrants violate U.S. law in any way, “they have to go.”