Melania Trump, undocumented immigrant?
© Getty Images

Call her America's Next Top Undocumented Model.

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On Friday, the Associated Press broke the story that Melania Trump worked in the U.S. as a model before getting the proper work visa. The AP examined ledgers, contracts and other documents from Trump's former modeling agency and found that she had allegedly worked 10 jobs prior to being permitted to work in the country.

A lawyer for Trump, who reviewed some of the documents, noted in a statement that they "have not been verified" and "do not reflect our records."

The AP story is just the latest look into the potential first lady's murky immigration history.

It highlights the hypocrisy of her husband, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE, demonizing undocumented immigrants as criminals and job-stealers.

It shows how our byzantine immigration system can entangle anyone, even aspiring supermodels and billionaire real estate developers.

It is a reminder that it probably isn't a good idea to be throwing around words like "illegal" when referring to people who simply want to work and create a better future for themselves.

"As a young entrepreneur, I wanted to follow my dream to a place where freedom and opportunity were in abundance," Trump said in a speech in Philadelphia on Thursday.

The problem is that she might have been too eager to follow that dream. Trump has said through her attorney that she first came from Slovenia in August 1996, on a combined B-1/B-2 visitor visa.

That visa would have allowed her to pursue work, such as meeting with agents or networking at fashion shows. What it did not allow is for her to work. For that she would need an H-1B visa, which she obtained in October 1996.

According to AP reporting, however, Trump did modeling assignments in the seven weeks after arriving here and before she was legally authorized to work.

The former Melania Knauss obtained a green card in 2001. She married Trump in 2005, and became a citizen in 2006.

It seems an almost unbelievable irony that Trump could be married to a former undocumented immigrant. He has repeatedly conflated undocumented immigrants with criminals, drug dealers and rapists.

He favors an expansion of the E-Verify program — designed to make sure that employees have legal status — that might have caught his wife if she indeed worked without authorization. Trump has also vowed to end the H-1B visa program that enabled his wife to model legally in the U.S. He called it a "cheap labor program."

What's more, the man who publicly demanded President Obama's birth certificate, passport and college transcripts has so far refused to provide documentation of his wife's past (and let's not even get into those tax returns).

"She has got it so documented," he said at a rally in August, referencing Melania's immigration history.

After earlier questions about his wife's compliance with immigration law, Trump promised a press conference on this very topic.

Is anyone surprised that it never happened?

To be clear, immigration records are highly personal and Melania Trump deserves the full presumption of innocence. As a new arrival in a foreign country, she might not have been aware of the details of U.S. visa regulations. Or she might have relied on the faulty guidance of her now-defunct modeling agency when it came to paperwork and contracts.

If only Trump were able to show more empathy for fellow immigrants. "I follow the law," she said earlier this year on MSNBC. "I follow a law the way it's supposed to be. I never thought to stay here without paper. ... I went by the law, and you should do that."

The implication there was that she was not like those other, "bad" immigrants — those working without papers.

Now it turns out that she may have been one of them.

In fact, it doesn't matter to immigration authorities whether you are a Mexican dishwasher or a Slovenian catalog model; an unauthorized worker is an unauthorized worker.

True, Melania Trump's alleged violations of immigration law occurred two decades ago. Yet until last year, when the Obama administration unveiled new priorities for immigration enforcement that focused on dangerous criminals and new arrivals, it was not uncommon for an undocumented person to be deported for offenses committed years ago.

And yes, Trump is a wife, a mother, a businesswoman and someone who is contributing to society. She doesn't deserve to be tagged with the dehumanizing "illegal" label.

But neither do the millions of undocumented immigrants who have not had the good fortune to marry into wealthy and powerful circumstances. 

The facts about Melania Trump's past likely will not change the mind of a single voter. What we can take away from her situation is how unfair it is to judge a person by their immigration status.

Reyes is an attorney, journalist, and television commentator in New York City.  He is a co-host of "Changing America" on MSNBC Shift.


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