Michael Wildes is trying to thread a needle.
Mr. Wildes, an immigration lawyer who was Englewood’s mayor from 2004 to 2010, is a lifelong Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter who also represents Melania Trump, the wife of President-elect Donald J. Trump.
Because there is some controversy about Ms. Trump’s immigration status — she is undeniably a U.S. citizen now, but questions still swirl around her path to citizenship — and because Mr. Trump’s statements about immigrants frighten many immigrants and their allies, and seem ironic if not actively hypocritical when juxtaposed with Ms. Trump’s history — and because it is not easy to be an active and public Democrat supporting this president-elect in any case — Mr. Wildes finds himself choosing his words very carefully these days.
Mr. Wildes’ primary loyalty is to the Democratic Party, he says; he is devoted as well to maintaining his reputation as an outstanding immigration lawyer, and it is in that capacity, he says, that he upholds the integrity of Ms. Trump’s immigration saga.
There are two parts to this story. The macro story is about immigration, and Mr. Wildes’ take on Mr. Trump’s possible actions in that arena. The micro story is about one particular immigrant, Melania Knauss Trump.
To start with, Mr. Wildes believes very strongly that the immigration system as it exists now in the United States is broken.
“We have several hallmark principles we are not adhering to,” he said. “There’s the principle of family reunification. Families should be together. And we are not giving employers the right tools. Ronald Reagan made the last change — he gave amnesty to three million people in 1986 — and then he shifted the responsibility for policing illegal immigration to U.S. employers. That might have worked in the 1980s, but employers should not be given the responsibility for our homeland security.”
Also, he said, we train foreign students in this country but do not allow them to work here without having to jump through many hoops. “They are not on-boarded into the workforce for fear that they may displace Americans, so they get jobs elsewhere,” Mr. Wildes said. “We are shooting ourselves in the foot economically. We should create a path for the best and brightest.
“The last two presidents have made the situation worse,” he said. “President Bush wanted to fix the immigration situation but he didn’t, and Mr. Obama woke up late to it, and threw a Band-Aid to the community in the form of DACA” — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival act, which helps the so-called dreamers whose parents brought them to this country as children and who know no other home. “Whether or not Mr. Trump will do more to right the ship and bring Congress to reform it properly — the jury is out on that one,” he said.
So what about Mr. Trump? He certainly has been intemperate on the subject of what he calls illegal immigrants, vowing at times to send them all back home and at other times saying that many were criminals and that those immigrants would be deported; and at still other, very frequent, times saying that immigrants from countries to our south — many if not most of whom he said are rapists anyway — would be stopped by a wall to be built across our southern border, a wall for which Mexico would pay.
“Many clients who are foreign nationals called me in a panic after the election,” Mr. Wildes said. “They were concerned about the directions that their case might take. It pains me as a Democrat, as a patriot, and as an American to see the national DNA that we have in immigration so at risk.
“But my own personal experience with the Trump family and its business” — Mr. Wildes has represented the Trump model agency and the Miss Universe beauty pageant at various times in his career — “is a different snapshot, one that respects the diversity and talents of clients. I believe that he will be tough on criminal aliens, but he has a strong predisposition toward business visas, and he may expand the business portfolio.
“He may surprise people.”
So what does he tell his clients? “I believe that a lot of Mr. Trump’s language was campaign rhetoric,” he said. “They get reassurance and strategy and scholarship and the benefit of over 58 years of experience in our office.” (No, that experience is not all from the 52-year-old Michael Wildes, who did not begin to practice law prenatally. His father, Leon Wildes, the firm’s founder and name partner, famously was John Lennon’s immigration lawyer; that case ended in the Beatle’s murder.)
Mr. Wildes believes that his clients can take solace from the fact that “it’s a logistical impossibility to deport 11 million people. There aren’t enough handcuffs. There aren’t enough jails. There aren’t enough beds. There aren’t enough planes to remove 11 million people and build walls and dismantle sanctuary cities. It’s an impossibility, both practically and constitutionally.”
Barack Obama has overseen the deportation “of more people than any other president in our nation’s history,” Mr. Wildes said, and he thinks that Mr. Trump will follow Mr. Obama’s lead. “I think he will be very harsh on criminal aliens.”
To go back to talented aliens — that is the category to which Melania Trump belongs, Mr. Wildes says; the government agreed with that assessment when it issued her first an H-1B visa and then a green card, he added.
There has been a great deal of controversy over Ms. Trump’s immigration status. To begin with, there is the obvious irony of the thrice-married, bellowingly anti-immigration Donald Trump having been married to two immigrants — first Ivana, and now Melania. (The second Mrs. Trump, Marla Maples, is American-born.) Beyond that, there is the question of how the current Mrs. Trump was able to live and work in this country, and how she eventually became a citizen.
Michael Wildes was not Melania Trump’s original immigration lawyer, but “when a question arose as to whether she had worked without the proper visa, I was brought in to review the documents and clarify that she was in full compliance,” Mr. Wildes said. “She has been beyond reproach.”
As the open letter he wrote detailed, Mr. Wildes said that Ms. Trump first came to the United States on a B-1/B-2 visitor visa in 1996, and obtained the first of a series of yearlong H-1B visas later that year. She was issued a self-sponsored green card “based on her extraordinary ability” in 2001, he continued. (Donald Trump and Melania Knauss were married in 2004.) “There is no doubt that she is highly accomplished,” Mr. Wildes said. “She has been associated with some of the biggest ad campaigns in the world, and she was highly remunerated.”
Mr. Wildes could not remember what those ad campaigns were, he said. They were all documented, however, he added, and the government accepted that documentation.
(Mr. Wildes suggested that a good place to find reports of Ms. Trump’s successful career would be on the internet. Google tells us that Ms. Trump was the cover model for a Bulgarian issue of Harper’s Bazaar, an Italian issue of Vanity Fair GQ — in 2000, she posed nude for that magazine — and a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She also worked with well-known photographers including Patrick Demarchelier and Helmut Newton.)
Donald Trump has weighed in on the subject of H-1B visas, although not specifically about his wife’s.
“The H-B1 program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay,” a statement on his website reads. “I remain totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse … I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigrant program. No exceptions.”
Ms. Trump has chosen not to release any of the documentation she provided to the government, which would put the public’s questions to rest, but “why should she release them?” Mr. Wildes asked. “The government reviewed them and trusted her. She’s not releasing them because she doesn’t feel that her privacy needs to be invaded. She was transparent about the indicia in her passport — but they are personal documents.
“I studied them,” he said. “I studied them with a magnifying glass. I studied them three-dimensionally. I am a stalwart Democrat, and if there was anything inappropriate, I would not have stayed the course. If she had not been compliant, I would not be her lawyer. That’s a tall order, but I’m old school. Someone’s word has value. Our scholarship is unparalleled when it comes to these matters.”
So what is an H-1B visa? How do you get a green card? For an explanation, we turned to another immigration lawyer, Steven Sklar, of the Maplewood-based law firm Pusin & Sklar. (Mr. Sklar grew up in Teaneck and is a graduate of Teaneck High School.)
“The key thing to realize about the H-1B visa is that it carries work authorization with it,” Mr. Sklar said. “There is one for models of demonstrably high merit and ability. To get one, you’re supposed to demonstrate that you are a bit of a star in the field, but if you are a garden-variety model, without a lot of a track record, you might well be denied.
“From the reports, it sounds debatable either way” — that is, whether Ms. Trump was gifted enough as a model to merit an H-1B, and whether, if she didn’t get one when she said she did, she worked in this country anyway. “But it wouldn’t be unheard of for someone to punch above their weight, to get some really nice letters, and to apply for it. It’s a matter of art. It depends on who looks at it. It doesn’t jump out at me as really fishy, but as a little bit questionable.
“It doesn’t seem to me that at that time in her career she would have had a lock on it, but it could happen.”
Then there is the question of Ms. Trump’s green card, which was self-sponsored. (Other rules apply to green cards that come through employee sponsorship, family connections, or marriage.) “There is a category of green card — that means a lawful permanent resident, who can live and work in the United States indefinitely — where you have to show that you are star in your field, either nationally, in your own country, or internationally. You have to show a level of expertise that means you have risen to the top of your field of endeavor.”
There are a few widely disparate fields in which an applicant can get such a green card, and there is “a menu of 10 things, and you have to have at least three of them, with solid documentation.” They’re not easy, although a good lawyer and a bit of luck always help. “You can dress things up a bit, and it is legitimate as long as you are not lying,” he said. And, Mr. Sklar added, all of this was easier before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
So the reason people are skeptical about Melania Trump is because “all of this is fishy — but it’s not impossible.” To the extent that there are questions about the way she gained citizenship, “it would be an embarrassment.”
One of the realities of an immigration lawyer’s life is dealing with people who came to this country as immigrants but want to lock the gates behind them, he said. He’s an avid amateur soccer player (and has an active practice in obtaining visas for soccer coaches), “and we were standing around after the game when we got on the subject of immigration,” he said. “This guy, a Russian, said ‘I don’t like these people coming in illegally.’ I said to him, ‘When you came here, you had a student visa, right?’” It is not legal to work when you are in this country on a student visa. “He said, ‘Right.’ I said, ‘Did you ever work then?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I asked, ‘Was it allowed by the student visa you had?’ He said, ‘No.’
“That does tend to shut down the conversation,” Mr. Sklar added. “But this kind of hypocrisy’s not a new thing.”
Mr. Sklar has his own stories about Donald Trump; his father, David Sklar, was a vice president in the Trump Organization from 1982 to 1990, when he died in a car crash. “My father negotiated all the commercial real estate deals for all the stores that went into the atrium at Trump Tower,” Mr. Sklar said. His father was complicated, he added; he worked for a consummate capitalist, making estate deals, but he also had been “galvanized as a young man by Henry George,” the 19th-century American reformer who “believed that most core social problems, such as unemployment and poverty, could be traced back to the institutions of private property and private land ownership.”
“What would my dad make of Trump’s rise?” Mr. Sklar asked. “He was aware of nasty goings-on, but he somehow admired them. Trump had charisma, and his deal making was creative. My mother” — that’s Dusty Sklar, who still lives in Teaneck — “said that if my father hadn’t been there to do those deals for Trump’s atriums, someone else would have done them.”
He recalls two stories his father told him about Donald Trump. “Donald and his brother Robert were at my father’s funeral,” Mr. Sklar said. “Robert is almost the polar opposite of Donald, a quiet, gentle soul, who does not seek attention. There was a moment, at the end of a working day, and Donald said to my dad, ‘If I had to be like Robert, I’d kill myself.’ My father asked why, and Donald said, ‘I couldn’t stand to be out of the limelight. I just couldn’t stand it.’”
Steven Sklar had to have a conversation with Donald Trump as he tidied up his father’s estate. “I was talking to him on the phone about business correspondence, and before more than a minute goes by, he says, ‘So, what do you think about Marla?’ He had just taken up with Marla Maples. And I say, ‘She seems fine, I guess.’
“It was just a weird moment. My dad had died recently, and he wants to know what I think about Marla.”
So, to go back to what Michael Wildes thinks about immigration and Donald and Melania Trump — “I will watch what they do, not what they say,” he said. “As a Democrat, and as an immigration lawyer, I have been waiting and watching with baited breath for my clients, who are in jeopardy or in perceived jeopardy.
“I have confidence when it comes to Trump’s propriety, when it comes to compliance and the business generation that visas will facilitate, because they are strong users of business visas.
“And I’m prayerful. I may be naïve, but I’m prayerful that he will be able to surmount the rhetoric of the campaign and do what’s right. This great experiment that is American democracy is greater than any one individual, and its major component, its DNA, rests on immigration. If we can fix this broken system, we will not only protect our homeland, we will also protect an economy that needs it.”