The parents of first lady Melania Trump have become legal permanent residents of the United States and are close to obtaining their citizenship, according to people familiar with their status, but their attorney declined to say how or when the couple gained their green cards.
Immigration experts said Viktor and Amalija Knavs very likely relied on a family reunification process that President Donald Trump has derided as “chain migration” and proposed ending in such cases.
The Knavses, formerly of Slovenia, are living in the country on green cards, according to Michael Wildes, a New York-based immigration attorney who represents the first lady and her family.
“I can confirm that Mrs. Trump’s parents are both lawfully admitted to the United States as permanent residents,” he said. “The family, as they are not part of the administration, has asked that their privacy be respected so I will not comment further on this matter.”
The Knavses are now awaiting scheduling for their swearing-in ceremony, according to a person with knowledge of the parents’ immigration filings.
Questions over the Knavses’ immigration status have escalated since Trump campaigned for the White House on a hard-line anti-immigration agenda. Those questions grew sharper last month, when the president proposed ending the decadeslong ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor their parents and siblings for legal residency in the United States.
Trump has repeatedly blasted the long-standing policy as “chain migration.” In last month’s State of the Union, the president called that process a threat to Americans’ security and quality of life. Under his plan, he said, only spouses and minor children could be sponsored for legal residency.
But immigration experts said such a path would have been the most likely method his in-laws would have used to obtain residency that permits them to live in the United States.
Matthew Kolken, a partner at a New York immigration law firm, said there are only two substantive ways Trump’s in-laws could gain green cards: by their daughter sponsoring them or by an employer sponsoring them. The latter is unlikely, as it would require a showing that there were no Americans who could do the job for which they were sought.
Both the Knavses are reportedly retired. In Slovenia, Viktor Knavs, now 73, worked as a chauffeur and car salesman. Amalija Knavs, now 71, was a pattern maker at a textile factory.
David Leopold, an immigration lawyer and a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the first lady’s sponsorship of her parents appears to be the only reasonable way they would have obtained green cards because the process currently gives preferential treatments to parents of a U.S. citizen.
“That would be the logical way to do it, the preferred way to do it and possibly the only way to do it under the facts that I know,” Leopold said.
Foreigners can also petition for refugee status or other humanitarian programs, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
A White House spokesman and a spokeswoman for the first lady declined to comment.
Melania Trump came to the United States from Slovenia in 1996 for several modeling assignments, first on a visitor’s visa and then a work permit. In 2000, Trump self-sponsored herself for a green card based on her “extraordinary ability” as a model, according to information Wildes previously released.
In 2001, several years after meeting Donald Trump, she received a green card that granted her permanent residency. She became a U.S. citizen in 2006, the year after she and Trump were married.
The Knavses have lived on and off with the Trumps in New York City for years and have been seen frequently in Washington since the first lady moved into the White House last summer.
Several years ago, their attorneys contacted the office of Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., now the Democratic minority leader, for help checking on the status of their petition for a green card with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to a person familiar with the outreach.
Such efforts are not unusual and some congressional staffs, including Schumer’s, have a dedicated immigration case worker to handle such requests. Schumer’s office declined to comment.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 30, Trump offered a four-point immigration reform plan that he said “protects the nuclear family by ending chain migration.”
“Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” the president said in his speech. “Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children. This vital reform is necessary, not just for our economy, but for our security, and our future.”
Trump underscored his position in a Feb. 6 tweet.
“We need a 21st Century MERIT-BASED immigration system,” he tweeted. “Chain migration and the visa lottery are outdated programs that hurt our economic and national security.”
Democrats and some Republicans have vociferously opposed that measure. Last week, the Senate defeated legislation offered by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and backed by the White House that included Trump’s proposal.
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