Melania Trump’s H-1B controversy explained

The H-1B visa was intended to fill workforce gaps, but Congress saw fit to include fashion models in this visa category

Melania and Donald Trump
Credit: REUTERS/ Mike Segar

Overseas fashion models working on H-1B visas is a peculiar part of the visa law. This visa is intended for high-skilled workers, such as those in computer-related occupations. But to work in the U.S. in the 1990s as a fashion model, the H-1B visa was Melania Trump's obvious visa choice.

Melania Trump, who in 2005 married Republican president nominee Donald Trump, has had a career as a fashion model and later became a citizen.

Today, Melania Trump's visa record is getting serious scrutiny. Did she have the right visa for working? (Her husband has made visa reform, including H-1B visa reform, a high priority in the campaign.)

In 1995, Trump was involved in a photoshoot in New York for a now-defunct French magazine, according to the New York Post, which published racy photos from it. That prompted Politico to ask about Trump's visa history.

The story pointed to her own comments around her use of a visa. In January, for instance, Harper's Bazaar quoted Trump saying: "Every few months, you need to fly back to Europe and stamp your visa. After a few visas, I applied for a green card and got it in 2001. After the green card, I applied for citizenship. And it was a long process."

The H-1B visa does not require people to get a visa stamped "every few months." The visa is issued for three years and can be renewed for another three. Visa holders who are seeking a green card can stay beyond the maximum six years.

The controversy prompted Trump to respond Thursday in a Tweet that said in part: "I have at all times been in full compliance with immigration laws of this country. Period. Any allegation to the contrary is simply untrue. In July 2006, I proudly became a U.S. citizen."

The Trump campaign hasn't released records to support Melania Trump's assertions, which has fueled the speculation about her immigration status in the 1990s.

A visa that is of short duration is the B-1, a business visa, and B-2, a visitors visa. The use of the B-1 is very limited and is not intended for employment. It's designed for short-term uses such as consulting with business associates, and attending a convention. But was Melania Trump actually employed?

The New York Post doesn't say whether Trump was paid for the photoshoot. If she wasn't paid, it may not be employment.

The inclusion of fashion models in the H-1B visa has always been eyebrow raising.

The H-1B visa, created in 1990 as part of an immigration reform effort, was intended for people with bachelor's degrees working in high-skill occupations. At the same time, Congress also created O and P visa categories. The O is for people of "extraordinary ability or achievement," and the P visa is used for athletes, performers and artists. Fashion models weren't mentioned.

This exclusion of fashion models from any visa category was considered an accident by lawmakers. There is no reason not to allow fashion models in the U.S. Having models shoot on location, for instance, in New York rather than in London is a plus. Photoshoots can employ many others in support of the effort.

In 1991, Congress passed an amendment adding fashion model to the H-1B visa category, but excluding it from any particular education requirement.

As demand rose on the H-1B cap, there have been efforts in Congress to remove fashion models from the H-1B category and make it a subset of the P or O visas, to free up more visas for computer occupations and other skill sets. But these efforts have all come up short, entangled in the broader immigration reform debate.

This story, "Melania Trump’s H-1B controversy explained" was originally published by Computerworld.