Michael J. Wildes, Managing Partner at Wildes & Weinberg is an adjunct professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York and teaches Business Immigration Law. He is a former federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn (1989-1993). Michael Wildes is a frequent participant on professional panels and commentator on network television and radio with regard to corporate immigration law, employer sanction work and compliance. Some of Michael Wildes recent clients include First Lady Melania Trump, famed artists Sarah Brightman, Lionel Richie, Boy George, many of the former Miss Universes’ as well as soccer icon Pele, and Master Chef Jean Georges. He was also the mayor of Mayor of Englewood, New Jersey–where he resides.
Your dad Leon established this boutique law firm in 1960, he’s well known for his successful representation of John Lennon’s widely publicized deportation proceeding. Tell us about when your dad started the firm and where you have taken it today?
Dad started the firm in 1958 before he and my mother started me in 1964. I wasn’t all of 10 years old when I started going to the practice with my father, which was located in the same office building where we’re still paying rent and about to negotiate a new 15-year lease at 515 Madison Avenue, 53rd Street. The deal with my father was very simple. He would wake me up on a Sunday morning and ask, “Did you have plans today?” If I said no, he would suggest, “Well why don’t you come with me to the office.” My job was to cut scrap paper from 8:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening. If I was lucky, my mother would make us some kosher sandwiches, and wrap them in tin foil and my dad and I would walk to the waterfall down the block. We would sit there, and it seemed as though it would take us a week and a half to open the sandwiches given the heavy-duty layers of foil she used. I enjoyed that time. Just dad and me. If I was a good boy, when I got home at night, he awarded me a big beautiful law book. I worked hard to fill my empty bookshelves. As the years passed, I continued to develop a love and a reverence for my father who was not just a scholar in the field, but also my best friend to the extent that I never wanted to go out of town for college. I attended Queens College and during my four years there, I went to class two days a week and worked in the office the other three days. Dad started this robust practice and it was all based on his scholarship, his love, and his personal character. You could never tell if he was talking to a rock star, a member of the Beatles or a housekeeper. He remained the same even keeled man when he was dealing with his children as he was when dealing with clients and people in the community. I have had the good fortune to fill deep shoes and am contemplating the next generation. I met my wife in my dad’s class where he taught at Cardozo Law School for 33 years, and where I am now teaching for the past seven years. Two of my four children are in my class now, so my wife Amy and I can say that we have “Immigration in our DNA”. It has been a real privilege.
You teach, you’re a former mayor, and federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn. In my world, I would call you a renaissance man. Tell us more about what you do.
I realized early on in life when I walked the beat through the 112 Police Precinct in Forest Hills that I would be judged by what I did, not what I said. I remember the first time I sat with a police officer on my very first tour of duty and half of my equipment fell off my belt because I hadn’t fastened it properly. I realized then that I had a lot more to learn. He taught me the powers of observation, lessons in life, and that it was so important to lead by example. Both for my children and my clients I make sure that I’m sincere and have their plight in mind. Most lawyers look at cases as if they’re files and I view them as a journey that I have the privilege of being asked to join. It’s just an extraordinary experience to witness generations of contacts that my father generated. We have the capacity to continue this legacy with my children.
Immigration law requires sensitivity. You’re helping somebody get to point A to point B in the most humane way possible. Please elaborate.
The shelf life of an immigration case can be weeks, months, or decades. I realized early on it was a better calling in life to be associated with somebody’s challenge. We step into the stead of our clients as if it’s our own journey and I think in many ways my upbringing as an observant Jew has taught me to appreciate the biblical people of the passport. There’s a vulnerability that people feel and if I can affect some measure of comfort along the process they will never forget this, and they will send their friends and their relatives to us. We have generations of great grandparents and great grandchildren that we have obtained visas, green cards, and even citizenship for.
How have the laws changed with immigration over the past 30 years- for the better or worse?
Our immigration laws are broken and frozen in time. The last time we had a meaningful change was during the Reagan Administration. President Reagan awarded green cards to three million people in 1986 provided they could prove that they entered the United States illegally before 1982. He had the presence of mind to understand that you could not have a society of people living in the shadows and that these souls could contribute exponentially more to our Treasury. Since then, Congress has effectively put “band aids” on our immigration laws. Immigration is one of the strongest tools we have in our arsenal to make sure that we can globally compete. We have a robust foreign student body that we provide visas to; we educate foreign students here, but we shoot ourselves in the foot when we don’t create an opportunity for them to onboard into our workforce. In fact, we end up having to compete against them when they return to their home country! It doesn’t seem that we are working seamlessly nor are we effectively protecting our Homeland. With over 11 million people within our border it appears the Administration is trying to cater to political promise rather than looking to really cure the problem.
What is the message you are trying to portray in your upcoming book?
Human asset intelligence and the great experiment in democracy requires us to think out of the box. And not to put everybody into one category and feel threatened. I believe in my heart that the stories told in this book were ones that our founding fathers would envision. They cared as much to protect our nation and homeland as well as the entrepreneurial spirit that immigrants brought to our shores. We fought pirates in the high seas in the 1700s and our immigration laws now should be rock solid. Our modern-day terrorists should not scare us from doing what is right. My work focuses on a series of cases that will inspire many as they set forth on their journeys into our shores. Many people are curious as to the kinds of provocative cases I have gotten involved in as I have flown around the world to help individuals working in sensitive posts seeking America as a safe haven.
Who are some of your high-profile clients
In recent time we have worked with Melania Trump, Sinead O’Connor, Lionel Richie, Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten, race car drivers, scores of scholars, and stylists. Our firm has attracted people with great substance in the arts and entertainment to people with real life threating challenges as well as ambassadors, defectors, etc.
What sets your boutique firm apart from the other law firms that handle immigration law?
We are results oriented and transparent to our clients. We act under the canons and ethics of our profession and work on a financial basis to what our clients can afford. We bill by the project and always make ourselves available. I assign three people to each case so that redundancies are in place.
Was there ever a case that you wanted to win that you said to yourself this one is going to be almost next to impossible?
Mohammad Al-Khilewi, the first Secretary to the Saudi Mission to the UN, came in to see us in 1994. I had just joined my father’s practice as a lawyer. He was trained to be a spy in the Saudi diplomatic corps and when he came to the United States he was asked to do all sorts of tasks that made him uncomfortable. He spent many months zeroxing over 14,000 documents to prove his point alleging that Saudi Arabia was supporting terrorists, conducting surveillance of Jewish organizations, funding nuclear programs with the Chinese, and supporting Hamas. As Jews we were shocked and wanted to give him every minute of our time. He called me ‘brother’ because we were biblical brothers and became very close. His defection was one of the highest profile cases that our office handled and proved that our great Saudi friends were capable of human rights atrocities. Barbara Walters did several profiles on her program 20/20. We helped him to secure asylum, a green card, and ultimately U.S. citizenship. He is a testament to the kind of journey and a diamond in the rough that America is and proved that our shores are available to those that did heroic things. The other case was Kwame James who was a 6’8” young African American male basketball players who was sleeping on American Airlines Flight 63 when Richard Reid started to ignite his shoes in an attempt to blow up the plane. Seeing how tall he was, the stewardess immediately shook him and woke him up so that he could restrain this terrorist while two F16 fighter jets helped the plane safely land. After great effort, he was awarded his green card and remains a hero who saved lives and millions of dollars. We have helped scores of others defect and on one occasion even had Homeland Security stop an airplane to protect a client. To get more of these types of stories…. read my book!
Tell us about your family life.
I have a wonderful wife, Amy, that I met in my father’s law class. She is younger and more stunning than when I first met her, and we have four beautiful children. Two are studying to be lawyers, one is married, the other will be married soon, my other daughters are graduating from college and high school this year. I have been an EMT for the past 24 years and a mayor and city councilman for 11 years. I was “uncle daddy” for the better part of my kid’s early years. I was the guy that would come home and change his shirt, go to an evening job, be called out in the middle of the night if there was a shooting or a fire. One day my youngest, came to me and said, “Daddy take off your shoes” and I replied, “Why sweetheart?” She responded, “You can’t run for mayor if you don’t have any shoes on and maybe you will spend a little more time with us.” That was it for me. It was the knife that tore right into me. It was time for me to concentrate on my practice and my family, so I got out and left with a good name.
Although you have many years ahead of you, how would you want to be remembered in business.
As someone who rolled up his sleeves and worked until the job got done. It is so important to get things right and to be transparent and honest in the process. America’s golden doors were opened by people who had the same ethic. I owe it to my grandparents who survived the Holocaust, whose certificates of citizenship adorn my wall, to make sure that I keep that door hinged for the next generation.
Favorite Restaurant in New York City?
I like my wife’s home cooking! But if I go out to eat, it’s typically Tuna Tartar, Sushi or Branzino!
What was your favourite movie?
Roman Holiday. Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. I have a signed poster in my home. I’m an “Old school kind of guy.”
In one word, how would you describe your life and where you are today in it?
“Grateful.” I was born to extraordinary parents. What my father had in scholarship and character, my mom had in love and I greatly miss her deep blue eyes for the past 22 years. When I look into the mirror I see her. And with her in my rear-view mirror, I endeavor to raise my children with the same legacy.
Photographer Udo Spreitzenbarth @udophotography
Groomer Virginia Martin for Angelo David Salon | René Furterer | The FLEX Brush
Photo Imaging Enri John Angeles enriangeles.myportfolio.com
Cover location credit New York Friars Club