Melania Can Be a Powerful Ally for Immigration Advocates
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Melania Trump definitely did not sign up for this.
In fact, when she married Donald Trump in 2005, becoming the first lady was probably toward the bottom of the list of jobs she expected to take on, somewhere between high school teacher and nun. But so far, she’s actually taken the role in stride. In May, she launched her “Be Best” public awareness campaign, advocating against cyberbullying and opioid use, both noble and relevant causes. Following the devastating hurricanes last year, Mrs. Trump visited Texas to meet with families suffering from the impact of Hurricane Harvey.
But one area where Melania has drawn criticism is her fashion choices. As a former model, she wears mostly designer pieces, some of which have been the subject of disapproving commentary. On a trip to visit a detention center for undocumented children, she famously wore a Zara parka with the words “I don’t really care, do u?” scrawled across the back. Perhaps the most tone-deaf was the white pith helmet she wore on a trip to a wildlife preserve in Kenya. The hat has a controversial colonialist history: it was widely used by European militaries throughout Africa and in India and became a popular sun hat for civilian Europeans visiting colonies in the 1930s. The accessory was widely panned, from Twitter to academia. Matt Carotenuto, a historian and coordinator of African Studies at St. Lawrence University, compared the outfit to showing up on an “Alabama cotton farm in a confederate uniform.”
Fashion can be a powerful tool of expression for first ladies. Michelle Obama sported affordable styles that the average American woman could enjoy. And she combined fashion with diplomacy by pairing designers with countries during state dinners or trips; for example, she wore clothes by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan to the India state dinner. She used her visibility to support allies across the world. She purposefully wore a Gucci gown to a dinner the same day Italy voted on a referendum widely viewed as a verdict on Matteo Renzi, the country’s progressive prime minister.
It’s an easy conclusion that Melania Trump should make an effort to mirror her predecessor’s taste and awareness, because fashion choices do matter.
However, Melania’s fashion choices have been unwisely used to discredit her successes. Focusing on her fashion blunders ultimately undermines a potentially powerful strategy for advocates of migrants who seek political asylum and economic opportunity. Melania can be an ally to help divide and conquer the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies. Unlike many Republican congressmen and other elected officials who formerly espoused positions favoring free trade, open labor markets, and immigration reform, Melania actually has the guts to call out her husband. In June, referring to the Trump administration's “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy under which children were separated from their parents, Melania stated that she “hates to see children separated from their families” and wants to see a more “successful immigration reform.”
It is very easy for Trump opponents to succumb to the temptation to demonize everyone associated with him, with his wife Melania being the person most closely connected to him. But Melania is an immigrant herself, and her heart is in the right place on this issue. Now is not a time for advocates of immigration to make an enemy of her. In fact, we can use all the allies we can get. And since Melania has the potential to bend her husband’s ear on the issue, it is a worthwhile move to weaponize her position by encouraging her to add her voice on the side of comprehensive immigration reform.
In January, Congress will be split: the Democrats will control the House of Representatives and Republicans will have an increased majority in the Senate. Any legislation passed by Congress will be the result of compromise and will need the support of the President. Passage of a humane immigration bill is actually a possibility, especially if Melania is an advocate and an ally.