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Big questions about Melania Trump's immigration status linger

Donald Trump's immigration position is, at its heart, fairly simple. People in the country illegally would be subject to deportation if he is elected president, as he said in his speech this week in Arizona. Even those who hadn't crossed the border illegally but who'd been admitted on a visa and then didn't leave are "a big problem" in Trump's estimation.

"Immigration law doesn't exist for the purpose of keeping criminals out," he said. "It exists to protect all aspects of American life. The work site, the welfare office, the education system, and everything else."

That speech came more than three weeks after Trump's campaign promised to answer questions about a more personal component of the immigration issue. In early August, Trump pledged that his wife Melania, a native of Slovenia, would hold a press conference explaining how she managed to navigate the onerous process of getting a green card after questions about the timeline of her entry into the country were raised by a number of outlets.

Remember when the New York Post ran a front-page story showing nude photos of Melania Trump? Politico realized that the date of that shoot, 1995, put her in the United States prior to 1996, the year she has said she arrived on a visa. After that story came out, Trump tweeted a broad defense of her arrival.

The promised press conference, though, hasn't yet happened.

Curious about the extent to which marrying an American citizen washed away any previous immigration problems, I reached out to David Leopold, an immigration attorney from Cleveland and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He explained that the popular understanding of how immigration is linked to marriage is wrong -- but also noted a number of other questions worth asking about Trump's arrival in the United States.

To the marriage question first. The understanding in popular culture that marrying a U.S. citizen automatically grants citizen status is incorrect. "The act of marrying a legal permanent resident of the United States doesn't in and of itself do anything," Leopold said. There are three main ways in which someone can get a green card: through an employer, through an immediate relative or through the green card lottery. What's an immediate relative? A parent or a spouse, for example. Essentially, then, a potential immigrant goes from having no immediate relative (and having to hope to win the green card lottery) to suddenly having one -- and for that group, there is no quota on how many green cards can be issued. A green card isn't guaranteed to the new spouse, but it makes them eligible to begin the process.

It isn't guaranteed in part because there are boundaries on who can receive a green card. It is not the case, for example, that an immigrant who enters the country by illegally crossing the southern border can simply marry an American citizen and be granted a green card.

"If I marry somebody who is undocumented, the only way at this point she is going to get a green card is if she lawfully entered the United States originally," Leopold said. "If the person entered the country without inspection -- I married a woman who crossed the border or entered through fraud or something like that -- then she is ineligible to get a green card in the United States." There are exceptions that apply, but this is a critical point: If someone committed fraud or entered the country illegally, they cannot get a green card unless they receive a waiver for doing so.

This is important to the question of Melania Trump.

Here's how Trump explained getting her citizenship to Harper's Bazaar:

"I came here for my career, and I did so well, I moved here. It never crossed my mind to stay here without papers. That is just the person you are. You follow the rules. You follow the law. 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."

According to Leopold, the need to have to travel back to her home country wouldn't accompany a visa linked to employment in his experience.

"The only time I've seen that -- and I've been doing this a long time, and I've compared notes with other immigration lawyers -- that the coming in and going out, to anybody who's been around this stuff, suggests that she was on a visitor visa, which doesn't permit work," he said. If Trump came in on a visitor visa and began working over a short period of time, the government would assume that she entered the country fraudulently. If she told a customs official she was entering the United States as a visitor but was planning to work, that's a material misrepresentation.

To get a work-related visa, Leopold adds, Trump's prospective employer would have to prove that Trump filled a job duty that no American could fill -- to show, in other words, that no other model in New York City would have done that shoot. Unless of course she had special skills -- or a special degree.

You may remember that shortly before questions about Trump's status arose she suddenly took down her personal website. That change followed revelations that Trump claimed to have a degree that biographers from Slovenia discovered she didn't.

"At the age of eighteen, she signed with a modeling agency in Milan. After obtaining a degree in design and architecture at University in Slovenia, Melania was jetting between photo shoots in Paris and Milan, finally settling in New York in 1996," the site read. The part about the degrees, it seems, was not true, as our fact-checkers noted.

We don't know why Trump claimed to have that degree -- but having such degrees could bolster an argument for a work visa. If she told an employer she had degrees she didn't in order to obtain a visa (and the employer wasn't the wiser), Trump is culpable.

Again: It's not clear what visa Trump used to enter the country and how it related to her work experience -- but she asserts that she has always been in full compliance with immigration laws. If that's not true, it's a problem.

How Trump obtained her green card is another question.

In an interview with Univision, a former attorney for the Trump Organization said that Trump obtained her green card in 2001 "based on marriage." She married Trump in 2005 and has said that she wasn't married previously.

As noted above, marriage is a fast-track to green card status, but it also carries another benefit. Someone who'd entered the country fraudulently isn't eligible for a green card unless they get a waiver. In this case, that waiver would have to come from a close relative -- like a spouse -- arguing that an exception should be granted because the relative would suffer an "extreme hardship" if the application were refused. This is "tough to do," Leopold said, suggesting that it demands proof of legitimate economic or emotional difficulty that would result.

For Leopold (who, we will note, donated to the Hillary Clinton campaign in March), the point isn't that Melania Trump entered the country and obtained citizenship under false pretenses. To some extent, the point is that we don't know her story -- which is strange, since it should be fairly simple to explain.