Melania Trump: The Complex World of Visas and Modeling

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  • Melania Trump
    Melania Trump
    Former First Lady of the United States
  • Donald Trump
    Donald Trump
    45th President of the United States
Melania Trump, modeling. (Photo: Rex Features)
Melania Trump, modeling. (Photo: Rex Features)

You might have heard that there’s a bit of Internet kerfuffle right now over Melania Trump, wife of Republican presidential nominee and former reality television personality Donald, and what kind of visa she had when she worked in the U.S. as a model in the ’90s.

But Mrs. Trump aside, the world of visas and modeling is complicated in its own right. So let’s try to break it down here.

There is a U.S. work visa specifically designed for foreign models, the H-1B3, allowing them to legally work in the U.S. without citizenship. The catch? There is a designation that this kind of visa may be issued only to “a fashion model of prominence” and “a fashion model of distinguished merit and ability.” And to prove how exceptional they are, foreign models typically need to include 50 pages of tear sheets of their modeling work as well as 10 letters of recommendation to be approved for an H-1B3 modeling visa.

In other words, aspiring models from other counties without actual credits to their name or models who might have done only minor modeling work in their home counties might not be eligible for such a visa.

Driving home this point is that a foreign model can’t even get an H-1B3 without first getting a U.S.-based agency to sponsor her for it or offer her employment through its agency. (And foreign models who are trying to figure out how to connect with an American agency without being able to enter the country with a visa that allows them to work aren’t necessarily stuck in a Catch-22. Someone who is working as a model in her home country can get her agency there to reach out to American agencies for her and try to facilitate her signing for U.S. representation with an American agency so that such a visa may be sponsored by the agency for U.S.-based work.)

Another kind of visa that foreign models with “extraordinary ability or achievement” may be able to apply for is an O-1 visa, issued to nonimmigrants with superstar skills in sciences, arts, business, TV/film, or athletics. Likewise, applicants have to prove that they’re the best of the best and also get a U.S. agency to sponsor or employ them to be qualified for this kind of visa.

Which is where the whole (possible) controversy about whether or not Melania Trump working legally in the U.S. comes in.

First, it’s a little debatable whether Mrs. Trump had achieved the modeling bona fides she would have needed to show to qualify for either the O-1 or the H-1B3.

But perhaps even more significantly, the way both of those visas work contradicts the story Mrs. Trump herself has told about the way in which she worked in the United States before getting a green card and then becoming a citizen. If, as Mrs. Trump has publicly stated in the past, she returned to her home country of Slovenia every few months so she could have her visa restamped and then legally return to the U.S. and continue to work, there’s a bit of a problem — neither the H-1B3 nor the O-1 visa, or any kind of visa granted to permit for legal work by foreign citizens, requires a return to the home country for visa renewal. The visa that does requires this sort of regular renewal is the B-1 visa, the type granted to a “temporary business visitor” — and it is a visa that does not legally allow for those in the U.S. on such a visa to actually work while in the country.

Politico, which first broke the story raising questions about the legality of Melania Trump’s work and visa status pre-citizenship, also quotes sources noting that during the 1990s, the time in question regarding Mrs. Trump’s work, many less reputable modeling agencies would bring foreign models to the U.S. on B-1 tourist visas and have them work — despite this practice being an illegal one.

At heart, though, the issue is less about Mrs. Trump herself and more about the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric in the United States right now around immigrants, especially those who are here and working without documentation or citizenship. This rhetoric has been not only espoused and aggravated by Donald Trump but is in fact a central tenet of his campaign for the presidency.

And the crux of the matter can be boiled down to an exchange after conservative political writer Andrew Sullivan wrote during the Republican National Convention that Trump’s comments about “uncontrolled immigration” seem misguided given that it’s “incredibly hard, onerous, nerve-racking, and super-expensive to immigrate to America. It should be easier, not harder.”

In response, writer and reporter Aura Bogado sent the following series of tweets:

Because, indeed, as a much-shared video released by the New York Times shows, the feverish chants calling for deportation at Trump rallies — centered around calls to “build a wall … kill them all” — don’t have anything to do with white, European models who might overstay a visa or work on a tourist visa illegally.

This fear-mongering that Donald Trump perpetuates does not speak to, or stoke fears about, beautiful white women eliminating the opportunity of U.S.-born girls to achieve careers in modeling but rather by insisting that a certain kind of immigrant — that is, a nonwhite one — is to blame for those who cannot find work.

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