Donald Trump’s modeling agency took advantage of the same visa program the presidential candidate himself has criticized – and appears to have violated federal law in the process, a CNNMoney investigation has found.
Throughout his campaign, Trump has strongly opposed the practice by American companies of using foreign workers instead of Americans, especially highly skilled workers brought to the United States via the controversial H-visa program. 1B.
“These are temporary foreign workers, brought in from overseas, for the explicit purpose of replacing American workers at lower wages. I remain utterly committed to eliminating the widespread and widespread abuse of the H-1B,” Trump said in a statement. communicated on its website, although it reversed its position during a recent Republican debate.
While this visa program is best known for bringing in tech workers like engineers and computer programmers, Trump’s own modeling agency has used the program for years, according to federal data. That’s because federal law surprisingly groups models together with these other skilled workers — despite it being the only job that doesn’t require a college education. (Instead, models must have “distinguished merit and ability.”)
And now the use of that visa by Trump Model Management, founded by Trump in 1999, is in question.
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The agency is currently fighting a class action lawsuit brought by Jamaican model Alexia Palmer, who was brought to the country on an H-1B visa.
The lawsuit alleges the agency recruits foreign models with salary promises that never materialize and defrauds the US government on visa applications. Palmer is currently the sole plaintiff and the lawsuit has not yet been approved as a class action.
In her case, Palmer says she was only paid a few thousand dollars over three years, although she was lured by the promise of more than $200,000 in earnings over the same period.
This salary was also the one indicated by Trump Model Management as part of the visa application.
“Ms. Palmer will receive compensation of at least $75,000 a year,” agency president Corinne Nicolas said in a letter to immigration officials. “She is a model whose services have been in high demand and whose proposed temporary presence in the United States has generated great anticipation from Trump Model Management and its clientele.” (Nicolas did not respond to a request for comment).
Government data analyzed by Ron Hira, a professor at Howard University, shows that since 2008 the Trump agency has managed to bring in about 30 foreign models – from countries such as Brazil, Latvia and China – using the H-1B program. Nearly half of those applications listed the same $75,000 annual salary, while others went as high as $416,000.
CNNMoney asked a dozen attorneys and other immigration experts to review the facts and documents in the case, and the vast majority said Trump’s agency appears to have violated immigration law. .
“It seems pretty clear to me that there was a violation…and a pretty egregious violation,” New York immigration attorney Jeffrey Feinbloom said.
Experts say the U.S. government requires full-time H-1B workers like Palmer to be paid high enough wages that they won’t be exploited or displace American workers — no matter how much they work.
Experts say the company was required by law to pay the amount listed on Palmer’s visa — in this case, $75,000 a year. Even more egregious, they say, is that the Trump agency did not pay the “governing wage” determined by the US government (which is based on industry and location).
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) confirmed that a sponsoring company “must pay actual salary or prevailing salary, whichever is greater”, meaning it was illegal to pay Palmer below either salary listed. “Employers can never pay below the prevailing wage,” the agency said in a statement.
For Palmer, the going salary recognized by the Trump agency on the visa application was about $45,000 a year. Instead, she earned less than $30,000 over three years from modeling jobs for clients ranging from Conde Nast to Saks Fifth Avenue.
And she couldn’t even keep the full amount. He was almost entirely swallowed up by taxes, a 20% commission to the Trump agency, administrative fees and modeling costs like $75 walking lessons and a $200 dermatology visit.
In the end, Palmer brought in $4,985 over three years (which included cash advances and a check for $3,880.75), a figure recognized by the Trump agency.
It’s unclear whether the US government would review the income she received before or after deductions like commissions and modeling expenses. But anyway, experts say she earned far less than the amount required by law.
“If someone isn’t paid what they’re supposed to be paid, they’re being taken advantage of,” said Neil Ruiz, executive director of George Washington University’s Center for Law, Economics and Finance and national visa expert. H-1B. . “This case shows that [Trump’s] own company has profited from the exploitation of its own H-1B visa holders.”
CNNMoney was unable to reach Palmer, but his attorney said it was “clear” that his client’s rights had been violated.
But the Trump agency said the 20% commission and refunds were clearly defined in the contracts Palmer signed.
“It is important to note that at no time while TMM was her model manager did Ms. Palmer EVER object to any of these deductions from her gross salary,” said Lawrence Rosen, the attorney representing the Trump Agency, to CNNMoney.
Rosen said Palmer was paid for the jobs she booked and nothing more — a practice he described as standard across the entire modeling industry.
The Trump campaign had a similar argument. “As far as Ms. Palmer is concerned, this is standard practice in the modeling industry and the visa application form is inadequate to meet industry practice,” a spokesperson said. Trump in an email.
Attorney Michael Wildes, whose law firm handled Palmer’s visa application on behalf of the Trump agency, said the H-1B visa gave Palmer the best chance of getting to the United States. He argued that it’s not the agency’s fault that US immigration laws “are archaic.”
“Mr. Trump and his modeling agency decided they wanted to give this lady an opportunity to work,” he said. “There is a disconnect in the world of agency law and immigration law.”
And Trump agency lawyer Rosen argues that since the agency was hired by Palmer, she was never considered an employee of the company and therefore has no claim to a certain salary. .
“She just hasn’t had a very successful modeling career,” Rosen said.
However, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency has made it clear that the compensation requirement applies to “an employer or agent”.
Still, Rosen acknowledged that the agency should have been clearer in the initial visa application. He said the $75,000 salary listed on official visa documents, which are filed under penalty of perjury, was nothing more than an “estimate.”
“In hindsight, now that he’s running for president and all that, you look at him and say why he doesn’t say ‘estimate’? Well, maybe he should have,” he said. he declares.
But immigration attorneys say there is no rough estimate when filing this type of federal visa application.
“For them to promise the US government to pay this particular employee that particular salary and not do so is a violation,” said Virginia immigration attorney Hassan Ahmad. “It drives down wages. It’s the belly of the industry.”
But even if it is determined that his salary was in violation of immigration laws, Rosen argued that the civil case lacks merit because it is up to the Department of Labor to investigate a violation — not the civil justice system.
CNNMoney asked the Department of Labor and USCIS to intervene, but neither would comment on the specific case.
Palmer’s civil case has been pending since last year, pending a judge’s decision on whether it should be dismissed (as requested by the Trump agency). A judge’s clerk said a decision was expected by the end of the month.
Whether or not it ends up being thrown out, many lawyers say Palmer would have a chance if she turned to the U.S. government instead.
They also wonder how far the alleged abuses go.
“The real question,” said New York immigration attorney Steve Maggi, “is if Trump is doing this in this case, how systematic is it?”
CNN Money (New York) First published March 10, 2016: 10:09 a.m. ET