Melania Trump's Slovenian parents get US citizenship

First lady Melania Trump's parents were sworn in on Thursday as US citizens and their lawyer said if was done like everyone else who can apply after five years of having a green card.

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Melania Trump's parents were briskly sworn in as citizens of the United States in New York on Thursday (Aug 9).

Viktor and Amalija Knavs, formerly of Slovenia, wore suits and sunglasses as they entered 26 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan just before noon, flanked by their lawyer and federal police.

As they left the building after the 20-minute private naturalisation ceremony, their lawyer, Michael Wildes, spoke briefly to a group of reporters who had gathered outside.

"We just thank everybody for their attention to this very important dialogue that we're having on immigration," said Wildes, who pointed out that his father had represented John Lennon in his immigration case. "This is a very important example of it going right."

In a phone call after the ceremony, Wildes described the process by which the US First Lady's parents had become US citizens.

"They had gotten sponsored by their daughter and then once they had the green card, they then applied for citizenship when they were eligible," he said.

Melania Trump became a citizen in 2006 after obtaining a green card.

Since initial reports emerged in February that the Knavses had obtained permanent residency in the United States, there has been a lack of clarity about when or how the couple received green cards. And unless the couple themselves divulge the timeline of their citizenship process, the applications and petitions are protected by privacy law.

Under immigration statutes, the Knavses would have needed to have their green cards for at least five years to apply for citizenship, along with fulfilling character, residency and civic knowledge requirements. The average time to process an application for naturalisation in New York City is 11 to 21 months, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Their lawyer said the couple had met the five-year requirement, but added, "I can't give further comment."

Asked if the Knavses had obtained citizenship through "chain migration," their lawyer said, "I suppose. It's a dirty - a dirtier word."

He went on: "It stands for a bedrock of our immigration process when it comes to family reunification."

In family-based immigration, adult American citizens can petition for residency for their parents, adult married children and siblings.

US President Donald Trump often rails against family-based immigration in his rallies, frequently reminding his audience of the October terror attack in New York, where Sayfullo Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan plowed a pickup truck down a bike lane, killing eight people near the World Trade Center.

While the President never mentions Saipov, who obtained his green card through the equally maligned diversity lottery, he has been known to detail the attack.

"He said, 'Hey look, there's people, nice people, they're relaxing, some are jogging,'" Donald Trump said during a rally last week in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, lamenting the lives lost and injured. "He decides to kill them."

"They lost arms. They lost limbs. They lost so much. They lost their life. But they lost so much," Trump added. "So, we have to change this and we're going to change it."

Typically, naturalisation ceremonies at 26 Federal Plaza are large events, where groups of immigrants are sworn in as citizens en masse, after reciting an oath and the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Knavses' lawyer said their ceremony was kept private for "security reasons."

The USCIS district director Thomas Cioppa presided over the ceremony, Wildes said. As is customary, the couple held their hands over their hearts and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, he said.

The Knavses, both in their 70s, raised Melania Trump in Sevnica, a Slovenian town of around 4,500 people. There, Viktor Knavs was a travelling car salesman and belonged to the Communist Party. Amalija Knavs had harvested onions on her family's farm, then worked in a textile factory, and sewed her two daughters' clothes.

Melania Trump was born in 1970 and during her childhood Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia, was ruled by Josip Broz Tito, a communist dictator who nonetheless allowed more freedoms than other Eastern bloc leaders.

When Trump began her modelling career, while still a teenager, the whole family sensed opportunity, according to those who knew them in Slovenia.

Melania Trump became a US citizen after entering the country on an Einstein visa for "individuals of extraordinary ability" in 2001 as a model.

She was not present for the ceremony, and her parents told their lawyer she was in Bedminster, New Jersey, where the president spends time in the summer at Trump National Golf Club.

The lawyer called the naturalisation ceremony "inspiring" and "heartwarming." The Jacob J. Javits Federal Building, at 26 Federal Plaza, also houses immigration court and the local offices of the Department of Homeland Security, and its subsidiary, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It is not infrequently the site of protests, but on Thursday, things were quiet as the First Lady's parents came and went.

Curious about the cameras, bystanders wandered over.

William White, a 74-year-old actor, said, with his eyebrows raised, "I'm happy for them."

He went on: "It seems like we now have two immigration systems. One for the people who have no power, and one for the people who we are letting in through the VIP entrance. We saw an example of that today."

News of the ceremony prompted an immediate response on Twitter, with tweets ranging from "welcome!" to "unfreakingbelievable."