Despite a judge’s ruling that put a nationwide halt to U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order on Friday, New York-based immigration lawyer Michael Wildes, who happens to represent First Lady Melania Trump, refuses to let up his fight against a travel ban that he calls “unconstitutional” and “wrong and hurtful.”
“We can’t take anything for granted,” he says. “We have what may be a narrow window in which to act. I’m advising clients if they have green-card or visa-holding members of their families perched in one of those seven countries to hurry back while we can ensure a safe re-entry.”
One of those clients is Nassir Monim Mansour, a Sudanese-born U.S. citizen and neurosurgeon at SUNY-Downstate University and King’s County Hospital, whose green-card holding parents were booked to return home from a trip to Sudan when the travel ban was issued.
“They were visiting their nieces and nephews because their parents had died and they wanted to be there for them,” says Mansour. “I told them to stay where they were. My father has dementia and is 78 years old. He’s in relatively good shape, but I heard stories of travelers being handcuffed. Handcuffing someone with dementia at his age – you can imagine how this could leave him traumatized. And what if they would have separated him from my mother and treated him that way?”
Mansour arrived in the U.S. in 2007 on a H1B visa – just like the one the First Lady used to start her modeling career in the U.S. He came to study oncology at the University of Chicago, where he completed his residency. During that time, he applied for and received a green-card and eventually became a U.S. citizen in 2014. He also completed a fellowship in complex cranial surgery at Indiana University School of Medicine before moving to New York last year.
“I left Sudan because it’s a military dictatorship,” says Mansour. “I came here because I could practice without fear of discrimination. I have been here for 10 years and will put all my efforts into protecting the values of this country. I never expected anything like this to happen here. There’s no reason for it.”
To ensure the Mansours re-entry into the country is as smooth as possible, Wildes isn’t taking any chances. He’s sending one of his lawyers to JFK on Tuesday when they arrive, filling out a habeas corpus plea and is prepared to file it should they encounter any problems at the airport. He also proactively reached out to the New York State attorney general’s office, which announced it was joining a federal lawsuit spearheaded by the ACLU to challenge President Trump's executive order.
“While Dr. Mansour is performing life-saving, brain surgery tomorrow, we’ll be taking care of his parents. And we feel honored to do so,” says Wildes. “A doctor and cancer researcher shouldn’t have to worry about how his parents are treated by customs officials. He should just be focused on treating his patients. And we shouldn’t be keeping people like him out of this country. They’re the people who are fueling all the great innovation here.”
Though he represented Trump Models for 10 years, Wildes says he was surprised that the First Lady requested his representation last summer.
“I can tell you that Melania was fully compliant of the law when she first came here and earned her green-card and citizenship based on her own exceptional merits." However, “as a staunch Democrat, it was awkward,” he says. “But everyone has the right to an attorney. You have to separate work from your political beliefs. I voted for Hillary and am a former Democratic mayor and councilman for Englewood, New Jersey. So I’ve been an active member of the Democratic party.”
Regardless, he signed a letter vouching for the legitimacy of Mrs. Trump’s work visas. When ledgers surfaced two months later alleging that she had been paid before the visas were approved, he stood by his earlier statement. “They weren’t credible documents,” he says. “They were never substantiated or authenticated.”
When asked whether he discussed the travel ban with Mrs. Trump, Wildes declined to answer, only telling Haaretz: “She’s an immigrant and as such, has great compassion. She’ll be the Queen Esther in this story.”
Wildes also declined to comment on President Trump’s “so-called judge” tweet over the weekend, which was widely viewed as denigrating Seattle federal judge James Robart, a George W. Bush appointee who shot down his executive order on Friday.
For now, he’s focused on his clients – whose numbers have quadrupled in the past week – and the potential battle ahead. So far, President Trump’s appeal to Judge Robart’s ruling was denied, but that doesn’t mean he won't go to a circuit judge for another appeal and eventually take his case all the way up to the Supreme Court.
That’s why Wildes is advising his clients to act fast.
“Now’s the time to get a visa, or if you have one, apply for a green card,” he says. “I have a client who’s Iranian and has dual citizenship in Switzerland, but is a permanent resident here. She was afraid to fly home to visit her sick other out of fear she won’t be allowed back in. So we started her citizenship application immediately.”
As legal counsel on immigration issues at Yeshiva University, Wildes is advising its immigrant students to apply for DACA status and assuring its current DACA students that they enjoy sanctuary status at YU. DACA students, known as “Dreamers,” fall under President Obama’s 2012 executive action known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It affords protection and federal benefits to children of immigrants who arrived in the U.S. when they were younger than 16 years of age, have no criminal record and meet a variety of other criteria.
The DACA program has personal significance to Wildes: It was his father, Leon Wildes, founder of his law firm Wildes & Weinberg P.C., who helped pave the way for it.
Leon famously defended John Lennon from deportation by Richard Nixon using something called “prosecutorial discretion.”
“In a clever strategy, he sued the government under a Freedom of Information Act, discovering that they had this robust program for deferred action that they kept secret and allowed certain individuals to remain in this country,” says Michael Wildes. “There was pure jubilation in the office when those 1,843 documents arrived showing that the president had granted deferred action against deportation to people who were removable and who were by and large criminals. So he flipped it to argue on John Lennon’s behalf.”
It was this program, once employed by Nixon for nefarious purposes, then by Leon Wildes to help Lennon gain U.S. citizenship, that became the foundation for Obama’s DACA program, which grants deferred action against deportation in two-year installments for those who sign up.
The risk, of course, is that those who come forward have their name on a list that President Trump has access to. If he chooses to, he can act to try to deport those thousands of immigrants’ children.
“They’re the next scientists, doctors, lawyers and innovators,” says Wildes, who wouldn’t give an estimate of how many of YU students are DACA, but he did call the school a “big cholent” – a yiddishistic melting pot. “That’s why this order is so wrong. I intend to fight it tooth and nail.”
When Haaretz asked Leon Wildes whether there were any parallels between the Nixon administration’s deportation tactics and Trump’s, he said: “Perhaps, but there’s a big difference. Nixon wanted to get himself re-elected. He targeted people for his own gain. Trump thinks he’s still running a business and is accustomed to doing things on his own, but that’s not acting like a president. There are 10 levels of government qualified to draft those orders. He’d have far fewer complaints if he listened to those with actual experience and let them do their work.”
Though Michael says he believes President Trump is a patriot who’s genuinely concerned about our immigration-related, anti-terrorism vetting procedures, he considers his method an unconstitutional one that reminds many of Nixon’s overreaches of executive power. Wildes does find great solace in our justice department and in the mass response by lawyers who worked pro-bono at airports like JFK and of law students, one of whom is his daughter, Raquel, a first year law student at Cordoza, where he is an adjunct professor and where his father taught for 33 years.
“My parents met in my zaydie’s class,” says Raquel, using the Yiddish term for grandfather. “How could I not follow in their footsteps?”
When many of her peers were packing up from a weekend at JFK, Raquel was just rolling up her sleeves, and last week, at a diner occupied by legal teams at JFK’s Terminal 4, she was ready to assist them in any way, whether holding up signs written in Arabic to flag down travelers affected by the ban, helping gather information to start habeas corpus writs or even handling social media.
“It was really inspiring to see the outpouring,” says Raquel who says the experience solidified her commitment to her grandfather’s legacy. “I’ve always been proud of the work of my parents and grandfather to protect the rights of immigrants into the U.S. but now more so than ever.”