Do You Have to Be a Genius to Get an 'Einstein Visa'?

Einstein, visa
German-born physicist Albert Einstein takes the oath of U.S. citizenship with his secretary Helen Dukas, left, and his daughter, Margot, on October 1, 1940. The "Einstein visa" bears his name, but how does an immigrant get one today? Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

After she came to the U.S. from Slovenia in the mid-1990s, Melania Trump — then known by her maiden name, Melania Knauss — worked as a fashion model, not a theoretical physicist.

Nevertheless, when the future Mrs. Donald Trump — whose biggest claim to fame at the time was posing for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue — was awarded a green card in 2001, she became a permanent resident under the EB-1 program, nicknamed the "Einstein visa," by the committee that created it because it's reserved for immigrants who have an "extraordinary ability." A visa was granted to German-born physicist Albert Einstein in 1932, as the Nazi party rose to power, enabling him eventually to obtain American citizenship.


Mrs. Trump's immigration history, first detailed in a letter from an attorney released during the 2016 presidential campaign, again became news when a Washington Post article raised questions about whether Mrs. Trump actually qualified for such elite status. Former Democratic Congress member Bruce Morrison, one of the authors of the Immigration Act of 1990, which created the EB-1, told the Post that Mrs. Trump's resume seemed "inconsistent" with the Einstein visa. An attorney for Mrs. Trump and her family countered that she was "amply qualified and solidly eligible."

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, the qualifications required for the Einstein visa do sound lofty. "You must be able to demonstrate extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics through sustained national or international acclaim," the primer notes. "Your achievements must be recognized in your field through extensive documentation."

As evidence, applicants must either have an outstanding one-time achievement — such as a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar or an Olympic medal — or meet at least three of 10 lesser criteria. Those include winning a lesser national or international award, belonging to a professional organization that demands outstanding achievement for membership, being successful in the performing arts, and/or providing "evidence that you command a high salary or other significantly high remuneration in relation to others in the field." Once the three criteria are met, the decision is made based on a nebulous and undefined “final merits determination” by the immigration agency.

Among employment-based (EB) options, the EB-1 green card is the first-preference employment-based green card category and one of the fastest ways of obtaining permanent residency in the U.S. among all the employment-based options. A total of 140,000 applicants receive green cards each year based on employment and each country is given only 7 percent (9,800) of the 140,000 total.

Elite multinational executives and managers, along with top scholars and scientific researchers also are eligible to apply for the EB-1 visa. After making the initial cut, status is determined by a "final merits determination" by immigration authorities, the New York Times reported.

Those who score an Einstein visa often have glittering resumes. According to the Times, recipients have included a classical music clarinetist, a stunt performer and director who had worked on several Hollywood blockbusters and a scientist who studies drug-resistant cancer, but athletes and models also have managed to get them. “The notion that you somehow have to be a genius or Einstein is utter fiction,” said Chris Wright, a lawyer based in Los Angeles.