Washington (CNN)The Slovenian parents of first lady Melania Trump are legal permanent residents of the United States, according to the lawyer representing them in the process -- raising questions about whether they are living in the US by the very means President Donald Trump has strongly criticized and sought to end.
Melania Trump's parents' immigration status could be thanks to 'chain migration'
Viktor and Amalija Knavs have been living in the United States with green cards and have been frequently spotted in Washington since their son-in-law assumed the presidency.
The Knavs' immigration attorney, Michael Wildes, told CNN that as of February, the couple are living in the US on green cards -- a status that allows them to live and work in the US indefinitely and paves the way for citizenship.
"I can confirm they are green card holders and legal permanent residents of the United States," he said. Wildes did not explain how they got those green cards, raising the prospect they were sponsored based on what Trump has called "chain migration."
The Washington Post first reported the Knavs' immigration status.
There are only a handful of ways that immigrants to the US can obtain green cards, and the largest share of them each year are given out based on familial connections. A smaller number go to immigrants based on their employment, and other categories include refugees and other special cases. Advocates for restricting legal immigration have pointed to the imbalance in favor of family connections as evidence of the need for reform, calling for a "merit-based" system that would choose immigrants based on need in the US.
Wildes declined to comment on whether the first lady's parents will soon be sworn in as citizens or the method through which the Knavs obtained their green card status. The Washington Post cited a person with knowledge of the couple's immigration status as stating they are awaiting a date for their swearing-in ceremony. In order to become citizens, legal permanent residents must live in the United States continuously and hold their green cards for at least five years.
Viktor and Amalija Knavs, 73 and 71 years old, respectively, are retired, and they maintain regular contact with the Trump family, often traveling with the first family on trips to Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster, New Jersey.
They have also been seen at the White House, where in November they sat next to Ivanka Trump in the front row to witness Trump's first White House Thanksgiving turkey pardoning ceremony. On New Year's Eve, dressed in black-tie formal wear, the Knavs walked the red carpet on their way into the New Year's Eve party at Mar-a-Lago.
A spokeswoman for the first lady declined to comment on the Knavs' immigration status, saying since they are not officially part of the administration, they deserve their privacy. The Department of Homeland Security said privacy laws prohibit it from discussing individual cases.
The likelihood that the Knavs could have been sponsored by Melania Trump or another family member raises the issue of what the President has called "chain migration," or family-based migration.
The US allows a number of ways for US citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor family members to come to the US permanently, including categories for parents, adult siblings and adult children, married and unmarried.
Trump and his congressional allies have fought to slash that dramatically, limiting sponsorship to spouses and minor children, including dropping the threshold for minor children from 21 to 18. Experts estimate that could cut overall immigration to the US by 40% to 50%, if those green cards are not reallocated to another category. Trump has advocated a "merit-based" system, but has not proposed any method of admitting immigrants to the US to replace those categories.
The President's insistence that the cuts to family-based migration be included in a deal to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children was an insurmountable sticking point in negotiations when the Senate failed to reach a compromise on the issue last week.