When accused of engaging in wholesale anti-immigrant politics for personal gain, Donald Trump has, on occasion, mentioned that his mother was an immigrant from Scotland and that two of his three wives were also born abroad.
Her reason: She followed the law and thinks others should have to do the same.
"I follow the law," Trump said. "I follow a law the way it's supposed to be. I never thought to stay here without papers. I had visa. I travel every few months back to the country, to Slovenia, to stamp the visa. I came back. I applied for the green card. I applied for the citizenship later on after many years of green card. So I went by system. I went by the law, and you should do that."
That's not an unheard-of sentiment, nor on its face one that is illogical or unfair. There are other legal immigrants like Melania Trump who feel the same. But what Melania Trump didn't say, but we will, is this: Models like her don't exactly wait in the same much-talked-about immigration line as the average Mexican immigrant -- or, for that matter, immigrant workers who would like to come to the United States from anywhere in the world.
You see, models are not just generally beautiful, statuesque women; the U.S. government officially considers them workers with special skills for whom a certain number of visas -- documents needed to immigrate to the United States and obtained after a lengthy application and clearance process -- are set aside each year.
To be very, very clear here, models are one of a short list of those who do very specific work who, in fiscal 2015, were eligible to apply for what is known as an H1B visa. There were 65,000 visas of this kind available to people with special skills but not necessarily a degree such as in fashion modeling. If you have ever wondered how it is that new foreign-born models rise to fame in the United States each year or every few years, the H1B visa program is part of your answer.
And to fully understand just how fortunate that can make a model wanting to walk New York's catwalks or grace its magazine covers, know this: There was a 144,796 visa cap on work-related visas issued in fiscal 2015. People with special skills, including models, had exclusive claim to a 44.8 percent of that total -- very nearly half.
There is a separate immigration cap of sorts which applies to people seeking to reunify with relatives. In fiscal 2015, that figure was 226,000 visas worldwide. Those who are the unmarried immediate relatives of U.S. citizens do not count against the fiscal 2015 cap, but they do count against the cap for fiscal 2016.
Those are just a few of the U.S. immigration system's very complex rules. In addition to the worker and family visa caps, there is a limit on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a given year.
And once a person has been approved, there is an additional wait for processing and a per-country cap which changes each year. Right now, this means that countries from which many people want to immigrate legally to the United States often have the longest wait times. There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government's own data. That's right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.
NBC Latino created a very helpful chart displaying what this means. The New York Times did too. We suggest taking a look at both. And, here is a look at the countries with the world's largest wait lists of people who want to come to the United States.
The list above is the latest rundown of countries with the biggest wait lists. It changes quite slowly, and most of those listed above have appeared on the list for a decade or more.
There are, of course, a few other ways that one can immigrate to the United States legally, including applying for entry as a refugee, and becoming engaged to a U.S. citizen and arriving on a fiance visa and marrying within a certain period of time. Or someone can apply as an unmarried person to join an immediate relative. But each of these processes also involve their own wait times. And the first -- refugee status -- is rarely approved for people who want to flee their home country due to violence, as is the case with many immigrants from North and Central America. No matter the joblessness rate in one's home country, economic woes do not make a person eligible to apply for refugee status.
Now, in fairness, Melania Trump did not arrive in the United States and in an instant become a U.S. citizen, eligible to vote. The latter is a process that takes several years and involves some mandatory waits plus processing time, a test and so on. For her, the transition from new arrival to U.S. citizen took 10 years. And, again, she is a model, married to a billionaire. She also had access to legal assistance to shepherd her application through the process and stay on top of deadlines and mandatory wait times.
You might be thinking, well, maybe things weren't quite so simple for models like Trump (then Melania Knauss) when she "settled" in the United States in 1996, according to her personal website. If so, You are partially right.
In fiscal 1996, the cap on employment visas was set at 140,000 people. (Take a moment and note that there were only 4,796 more worker visas made available in 2016 than there were in 1996. This is one of the issues about which employers who want to see more immigration often complain.)
That year, the cap on H1B visas for which a model could have applied sat at 40,040. This is the relevant page from the nation's annual immigration yearbook. Click on the image below to enlarge it.
Workers with specialized skills but no advanced degree like Trump had an exclusive hold on 28.6 percent of those 140,000 work visas in fiscal 1996. That's not nearly as good as fashion models have it today, but certainly far better odds than someone who is an unskilled worker who had to compete for one of 10,000 visas issued to unskilled workers that fiscal year. There were, of course, a few other categories. But every one of those people was subject to that 140,000-person 1996 cap.
And, since the then-Melania Knauss hailed from Slovenia,which is not one of the countries on that slow-changing wait list up above, once her visa was approved, there was processing time involved, though not a multi-decade wait.
And that means that workers with special skills, including models, do have a special pathway to the United States and generally shorter waits to immigrate. For these people, immigrating legally seems not only ethical but quite logical and feasible.