Melania Trump’s parents were briskly sworn in as citizens of the United States in New York on Thursday.
Viktor and Amalija Knavs, formerly of Slovenia, wore suits and sunglasses as they entered 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan just before noon, flanked by their lawyer and federal police.
As they left the building after the 20-minute private naturalization ceremony, their lawyer, Michael Wildes, spoke briefly to a group of reporters who had gathered outside.
“We just thank everybody for their attention to this very important dialogue that we’re having on immigration,” said Mr. Wildes, who pointed out that his father had represented John Lennon in his immigration case. “This is a very important example of it going right.”
In a phone call after the ceremony, Mr. Wildes described the process by which the first lady’s parents had become U.S. citizens. “They had gotten sponsored by their daughter and then once they had the green card, they then applied for citizenship when they were eligible,” he said.
Mrs. Trump became a citizen in 2006 after obtaining a green card.
Since initial reports emerged in February that the Knavses had obtained permanent residency in the United States, there has been a lack of clarity about when or how the couple received green cards. And unless the couple themselves divulge the timeline of their citizenship process, the applications and petitions are protected by privacy law.
Under immigration statutes, the Knavses would have needed to have their green cards for at least five years in order to apply for citizenship, along with fulfilling character, residency and civic knowledge requirements. The average time to process an application for naturalization in New York City is 11 to 21 months, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Their lawyer said that the couple had met the five-year requirement, but added, “I can’t give further comment.”
Asked if the Knavses had obtained citizenship through family-based immigration, sometimes called “chain migration,” their lawyer said, “I suppose. It’s a dirty — a dirtier word.” He went on: “It stands for a bedrock of our immigration process when it comes to family reunification.”
In family-based immigration, adult American citizens can petition for residency for their parents, adult married children and siblings.
Mr. Trump has criticized the program as a path for terrorists to get into the country.
“CHAIN MIGRATION must end now!” he wrote on Twitter in November. “Some people come in, and they bring their whole family with them, who can be truly evil. NOT ACCEPTABLE!”
The president often rails against family-based immigration in his rallies, frequently reminding his audience of the October terror attack in New York, where Sayfullo Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan plowed a pickup truck down a bike lane, killing eight people near the World Trade Center. While the president never mentions Mr. Saipov, who obtained his green card through the equally maligned diversity lottery, he has been known to detail the attack.
“He said, ‘Hey look, there’s people, nice people, they’re relaxing, some are jogging,’” Mr. Trump said during a rally last week in Wilkes-Barre, Pa, lamenting the lives lost and injured. “He decides to kill them.” “They lost arms. They lost limbs. They lost so much. They lost their life. But they lost so much,” Mr. Trump added. “So, we have to change this and we’re going to change it.”
Typically, naturalization ceremonies at 26 Federal Plaza are large events, where groups of immigrants are sworn in as citizens en masse, after reciting an oath and the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Knavses’ lawyer said their ceremony was kept private for “security reasons.” The USCIS District Director Thomas Cioppa presided over the ceremony, Mr. Wildes said. As is customary, the couple held their hands over their hearts and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, he said.
The Knavses, both in their 70s, raised Mrs. Trump in Sevnica, a Slovenian town of around 4,500 people. There, Mr. Knavs was a traveling car salesman and belonged to the Communist Party. Mrs. Knavs had harvested onions on her family’s farm, then worked in a textile factory, and sewed her two daughters’ clothes.
Mrs. Trump was born in 1970 and during her childhood Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia, was ruled by Josip Broz Tito, a Communist dictator who nonetheless allowed more freedoms than other Eastern bloc leaders. When Ms. Trump began her modeling career, while still a teenager, the whole family sensed opportunity, according to those who knew them in Slovenia.
Mrs. Trump became a U.S. citizen after entering the country on a so-called Einstein visa for “individuals of extraordinary ability” in 2001 as a model. She was not present for the ceremony, and her parents told their lawyer she was in Bedminster, N.J., where the president spends time in the summer at Trump National Golf Club.
The lawyer called the naturalization ceremony “inspiring” and “heartwarming.”
The Jacob J. Javits Federal Building, at 26 Federal Plaza, also houses immigration court and the local offices of the Department of Homeland Security, and its subsidiary, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
It is not infrequently the site of protests, but on Thursday, things were quiet as the first Lady’s parents came and went. Curious about the cameras, bystanders wandered over. William White, a 74-year-old actor, said, with his eyebrows raised, “I’m happy for them.”
He went on: “It seems like we now have two immigration systems. One for the people who have no power, and one for the people who we are letting in through the V.I.P. entrance. We saw an example of that today.”
News of the ceremony prompted an immediate response on Twitter, with tweets ranging from “welcome!” to ”unfreakingbelievable.”