‘Safe Haven in America’
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‘Safe Haven in America’

Immigration lawyer Michael Wildes of Englewood talks about immigration, Melania, fear, and hope

The zeitgeist really does seem to have an eye out for Michael Wildes.

For one thing, he’s running for mayor of Englewood, or to be more accurate, he’s re-running. Mr. Wildes was Englewood’s mayor from 2004 to 2010; he won the Democratic primary in June and is hoping to recapture the seat come November.

For another, longer-term thing, Mr. Wildes is a prominent immigration lawyer.

For a third thing, he has just published a book about immigration, “Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Golden Door,” which chronicles some dramatic stories. Some have happy endings, some do not, and some, realistically, end ambivalently.

It is not surprising that Mr. Wildes chose immigration as the focus of his practice. He is the son of a prominent immigration lawyer — who is his legal partner, in Wildes & Weinberg P.C. — at a time when immigration, and the law surrounding it, is one of the most contentious issues in the country.

Leon Wildes stands by as John Lennon flashes a peace sign on the steps of the federal courthouse in Manhattan.

Michael’s father, Leon Wildes, was John Lennon’s immigration lawyer, at a time when the Beatles were among the most famous musicians — to be realistic, among the most famous people, musicians or not — in the country. Probably in the world.

Although John Lennon had said, in 1966, that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” the modern Orthodox, early-middle-aged Leon Wildes had never heard of them in 1972, when he was hired to keep Mr. Lennon in the country. But his wife had. According to Michael Wildes, his mother, Ruth, was astounded by her husband’s lack of knowledge. “My father, bless him, was not exactly tuned into the rock music scene,” Michael writes. His father told his mother that his new clients were “Jack Lemmon and Yoko Motor.”

But Leon Wildes turned to out to be a quick study. It didn’t take him long to find out who his new clients really were.

John Lennon wanted to be able to stay in the United States to help his wife, Yoko Ono, find her daughter, whose father had kidnapped her. But Lennon had been vocal about his disgust with the then-raging war in Vietnam, and with Richard Nixon, the president who was pursuing it. The notoriously thin-skinned Nixon was not happy with the situation. Nixon was able to use his power to get immigration authorities to try to deport Lennon, who had been convicted of possessing marijuana.

Leon Wildes fought John Lennon’s deportation, and he won; it was that victory, Michael Wildes writes, that underlies President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That’s DACA, which President Trump has declared to be over, and whose recipients have lived in unresolved fear and longing for the last year and a half.

John Lennon won his fight to stay in the United States — or perhaps more accurately, Leon Wildes won that fight for him. But then the Beatle was murdered, assassinated by a young lunatic who stood in wait for him outside the Dakota, his looming, foreboding Central Park West apartment building.

The Wildes still are in touch with Yoko Ono.

So that’s Michael Wildes’ patrimony.

MIchael and Leon Wildes flank long-time client Yoko Ono.

Probably, given that history, once he decided to become a lawyer, it was almost unavoidable that Michael would become an immigration lawyer, and work with his father.

Michael Wildes has had a long, visible career; he specializes in immigration work with clients who have escaped terrorism, are accused of terrorism, are somehow tainted with terrorism.

His latest, most zeitgeisty work, though, culminated just this week, when perhaps his second most famous clients were sworn in as American citizens, and Michael was all over the American airwaves.

The newly American pair — Viktor and Amalija Knavs, the parents of Melania Knauss Trump (she was born Melanija Knavs in Slovenia, and Anglicized her name before she changed it more definitively through marriage) — were able to become citizens because their daughter sponsored them, through what is called “family reunification.”

That puts Mr. Wildes squarely in the middle of the national debate over immigration. His clients’ daughter’s husband has been loudly bellowing his loathing of people who come to this country through what he calls “chain migration.” And one politician’s chain migration is another immigration lawyer’s family reunification.

Michael Wildes with new Americans Viktor and Amalija Knavs.

Michael Wildes was not Melania Trump’s lawyer when she got her green card, or when she became an American citizen, but he has worked with her more recently, looking at her path to citizenship and declaring it to have been properly laid out and dutifully trodden. Ms. Trump came to the United States using a B-1/B-2 visitor visa in 1996, and later that year, and for years later, she got an annual H1-B visa, made for working visitors, popularly considered to be for geniuses but also aimed at star models, Mr. Wildes told the Jewish Standard in December 2016. Ms. Knauss next sponsored herself for a green card “based on her extraordinary ability,” Mr. Wildes said then; as a model, her talents, at least as far as we media-consuming masses have seen them, seem to lie in semi-nude, provocatively posed photographs (semi-nude, that is, if a hat counts as clothing), duckbill pouts, and moody glares at the camera. But apparently, at least in some quarters, that counts as extraordinary ability, and it got her a visa, a green card, and eventually naturalization.

MIchael Wildes takes a selfie with Melania Trump.

Next, she worked with her immigration lawyer, Mr. Wildes — who extols her talents, and believes strongly that she earned and deserved her H1-B visa — to get her parents their green cards and then citizenship.

Mr. Wildes has strong feelings about immigration. “Our wonderful experiment in democracy is made stronger with its main ingredient, immigration,” he said. “But that only works if we get it right. I don’t see this administration as steering us in the right direction. They’re scaring everyone into believing that we can keep safe by changing the very content of what has made America excel among the nations.”

He is wary about being seen as working with Republicans, because he has been a Democrat throughout his life; he feels that his work for prominent Republicans, as apolitical as it is, opens him up to be misunderstood. But his work for the Trumps and Knavs has given him a platform; at least for the week, he’s been omnipresent on cable news. (Although not on Fox, Mr. Wildes said, which has ignored the whole Knav story, although he has appeared on Fox discussing immigration more generally as recently as last month.)

Perhaps luckily for him, most of his time on camera this go-around has him sitting down, or focusing on his face, talking-head style. Otherwise, viewers would be treated to shots of him hobbling, on crutches, in a boot. That’s because he first suffered from bone spurs — a result, Mr. Wildes said, of the constant walking he’s been doing in pursuit of votes across Englewood. Next, his oldest daughter got married, just a few weeks ago; in his joy, Mr. Wildes jumped up and down so enthusiastically in front of the couple as he danced to honor and please them that he tore his Achilles tendon. (Ouch!) So he had the bone spur removed and the tendon repaired; at this point, the look is dramatic.

This is not the first time he’s been in the public eye; Mr. Wildes has testified before Congress, and he’s been a frequent commentator on both broadcast and cable networks. He’s used publicity to keep clients safe — it’s harder to kill an enemy, if you are the agent of a foreign government intent on shutting up dissident voices, if that person shows up on television or in the tabloids. But this is a new level of attention, and Mr. Wildes is using it to make the points that he feels must be made.

There are very real problems with our system, which has become sclerotic with bureaucratic over-reach, and the threat of terrorist infiltration cannot be ignored, Mr. Wildes said; in fact, he’s said that for years. But he also believes that both the country’s promise, in the abstract, and its need for the energy and intellect and drive of people who care enough about the future to make their way here, are fueled by immigrants.

“Every president has recognized that the system is broken, and every president has put a band-aid on it,” he said. “This time, a president has been able to get away with scaring people, because of a weak and fractured Congress. That is unacceptable.”

He thinks that although the administration is talking about terrorism as it works to stop immigration, “it’s an excuse. They really are doing it to scare people, to get the results they want in the election booth.

“Immigration has become a very comfortable thing to play ping pong with, but this is about people’s lives. We can’t afford to get it wrong. We have several stains on our nation’s history that we need to move away from. We cannot return to racism, to slavery, to the exploitation of people who are less fortunate, to the separation of families. We haven’t separated families since we did it on the slave block.

“And in our own history, we saw how families were separated in the Holocaust,” he added. “We have to be supersensitive to that.”

As he makes clear in his book, Mr. Wildes is a strong supporter of law enforcement; he does not think that evincing unhappiness at ICE’s actions now is in any way an attack on ICE. “I am formally a member of the law enforcement community,” he said. That’s because he’s a lawyer, but he also is a former auxiliary member of the New York Police Department, which he joined when he was 18. “I had the privilege of donning an NYPD uniform and being introduced to my first bulletproof vest as a gift from my parents,” he wrote. He walked a beat in Queens, where he and his family lived.

During his college years, Michael Wildes was an auxiliary officer in the NYPD.

Mr. Wildes interned in Congress for Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and then for Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic congresswoman who ran for vice president. “My time in Washington was a formative experience,” he wrote. “I never took for granted the liberties and freedoms our founding fathers sought on our shores and the extraordinary sacrifices made by so many to see that the United States remains a safe haven for those at risk and those at need.”

Next, Mr. Wildes became an assistant United States attorney for New York’s eastern district; there, he saw firsthand “a system that was not uniform, and that discriminated against people based on their national origins,” he wrote.

All of this gave him insight into the problems and promises of immigration; that, combined with his father’s example, propelled him into immigration law.

He is appalled by what he sees. One anecdote of many — “there are kids in the court system who are given lists of lawyers — and they are coloring on the back of the list.

“That is an atrocity.

“It is a fallacy to think that we approach any sense of humanity in the way that we are treating these children.

“Hachnasat orchim” — welcoming guests — “is in our DNA as Jews. We should be opening America’s golden doors as happily as in the Bible Abraham ran to wash the feet of the Arab visitors who came to see him, just 24 hours after he was circumcised. We should be willing not only to invest in their happiness, to remove the risks that they are facing, but also to make them part of the stock of citizens we have for the next generation, so that they will pledge allegiance to our flag and pay it forward another generation into the future.”

Mr. Wildes feels very strongly that words matter. “The people who have hijacked the immigration dialogue have come up with the worst terminology,” he said. For example, “anchor babies.

“I have never seen a woman come to my office and wait for 21 years so her child can sponsor her,” he said. “And chain migration is a very derogatory term for a bedrock of immigration law and policy known as family reunification.

“In general, people will work harder and make America stronger when they have their loved ones around them,” he continued. “The president misspoke in public when he said that uncles and nieces and nephews can be brought in. The law does not allow for that.

As for the argument that there are not enough jobs for new immigrants — “There are enough blueberries that need to be picked in Georgia, enough grass to be mowed in the suburbs, enough beds to be made in the hospitality industry across our country,” he said. There are plenty of jobs that native-born Americans simply do not want, and do not take. “We need all hands on deck.

“I deal with the owners of major companies, with major industrialists throughout the nation, who swear by their immigrant workforces,” he added. “I work with restaurateurs who treat their immigrant labor as if they were members of their own families, because they understand that it is those workers who work with extraordinary enthusiasm.

“And right now there is a deafening silence in Washington from our congressional leaders.”

In his book, Mr. Wildes tells us that there is no such thing as a typical immigration case — or for that matter a typical immigrant. Each would-be American is unique, he says.

If he had to point to one event that changed the practice of immigration law in his lifetime, Mr. Wildes writes, it was the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He knows what that nightmare looked like; he was with Hatzalah, the Jewish ambulance corps for which he has volunteered for most of his adult life; in that capacity, he was at the smoking heap on September 12.

In 1997, Michael Wildes went to court with a terrorism case. “Often I would feel safer in crowds and comforted by the lights of the cameras knowing the world was watching,” he wrote.

The terrorist murderers, who killed almost 3,000 people, were not Americans, and the cause for which they killed was not American. That led to a suspicion of people who were not Americans in general, and of Muslims in particular; this despite the fact that so many acts of mass murder in the United States, including such atrocities as the Oklahoma City bombing, were carried out by Americans, in the name of an incoherent but American ideology.

September 11 marked the start of a new balance between freedom and safety, Mr. Wildes said, and he takes the need to be safe very seriously. You cannot be free if you are in danger, or if you are terrified. But we must be smart about the balance, he says.

“As a former federal prosecutor, I want our borders protected,” he said. “I want them safe. But I am reminded that our founding fathers never lost their moral compass when they fought pirates on the high seas — and neither should we, in 2018.

“We are always at risk at our borders. Our homeland is always at risk. But we never threw away the recognition of our distinction, that among all the lands of the world, America is the land of liberty.”

There also is a real risk in turning people away, Mr. Wildes added. “I lecture frequently at universities throughout the nation, and I meet foreign students who cannot onboard in companies because they are deemed to be a security risk.” That is, students who once would have been courted for their intellectual, entrepreneurial, and creative skills, but who come from the wrong countries, are not allowed to work here. Instead, they return home, taking their newly learned skills and inherent drive with them.

Despite what he’s seen as an immigration lawyer — and perhaps also because of what he’s seen as an immigration lawyer — Mr. Wildes is guardedly optimistic about the future. Personally, he’s got many blessings. His father, at 85, still comes to the office. “We get to sit through client intakes together,” he said. “I have some very deep footprints to fill.”

He met his wife, Amy, at law school; they both went to Cardozo, Yeshiva University’s law school, and took a class that his father taught together. Now, Amy manages the firm’s New Jersey offices, one of four around the country, and Mr. Wildes is continuing his family connection with Cardozo. His two older children, Raquel and Joshua, both are students there, his next daughter, Lauren Ruth, just finished college, and Jacqueline still is in high school.

Mr. Wildes’ mother died when she was 56. The Wildes miss her, but her memory permeates their experience at Cardozo. “My father dedicated a room to her memory, and I made my class schedule so that I can daven mincha in that room and then teach the class in her honor while I’m there,” he said.

Michael Wildes is confident that eventually the immigration system will be fixed, even if will take a great deal of time and much so-far-nonexistent goodwill. That’s the promise of this country, he said; as the descendant of immigrants who came here looking for a better life, and whose children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren found that life, he thinks that the promise will be fulfilled for the next generation of new immigrants.

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