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lawyer tackles toughest immigration cases

For most lawyers, wearing bulletproof vests is not standard procedure. Nor are travel arrangements made courtesy of the U.S. Capitol police. Such measures, though, have become commonplace to attorney Michael Wildes, who has handled the immigration affairs of a suspected terrorist and a high-profile Saudi defector, and has negotiated the safe return of children kidnapped to foreign lands.

Wildes, a former special assistant U.S. attorney in New York and an Englewood councilman, is becoming well-known in the immigration community for handling the toughest, most complicated, and potentially dangerous cases in immigration law.

Leon Wildes, left, with his son and law partner, Michael, in Manhattan. Michael Wildes has an intense interest in family history and credits his ancestors for who he is and what he has.



Top left Michael grandmother’s passport, and middle, that of his great-grandmother. top right, a family portrait taken just after 1900.

“I think we send out a message to people who would want to undermine the fundamental tenets of our government when we put ourselves out there and stand up for what we believe in,” said Wildes. “If I were to stand down because of threats they level, they win.” As an immigration attorney, he has made headlines by defending the right to asylum for a suspect in a Saudi bombing that killed 19 U.S. servicemen in 1996. And he represented a Pakistani who claimed to have knowledge of a 1998 nuclear attack on India (it never occurred).

In September, the 34-year-old lawyer helped Petya Petrov, a Manhattan doctor, retrieve her three children from Syria, where they were allegedly being held unlawfully by her estranged husband, Viktor Petrov. And a few years ago, he became involved with a Saudi Arabian defector, who was being hunted by a terrorist party from his country. Wildes, a boisterous, fast-talking Type-A personality who can seem pushy and caring at the same time, seems to be driven by the high-pressure cases his clients bring him. Always found with a phone at his ear (he owns two cellular phones), Wildes claims to sleep only three hours a night and is in his office at 5:30 a.m. each day.

“I’m impassioned on their behalf to see that justice is served,” said Wildes, a partner since 1996 at the Manhattan law Firm of Wildes & Weinberg, which was founded by his father, Leon Wildes. It was this sense of justice that led him to help Petya Petrov, whose three children were kidnapped to Syria by her husband. Wildes helped her free of charge.

“I was very lucky to get to know Mr. Wildes,” said Petya Petrov. “It was the happiest thing when they returned.” Petrov’s husband, Viktor, took the children to Syria, leaving a note saying he was going to Great Adventure. Viktor Petrov allegedly had his parents hold the children hostage in Syria while he returned to the United States, making demands that his wife let him manage all her income except $5 per day. He also insisted that she find him a job as a medical resident, and that she not make long distance phone calls, use the Internet, or meet friends, she said.

“She realized he was blackmailing her,” Wildes said. “Most people do not come back to the United States after they kidnap their kids.” Wildes helped secure the children’s return to their mother by negotiating with Syrian officials to obtain custody and worked to get their father charged in a complaint under the International Parental Kidnapping Act of 1993, which he helped to pass.

“This sends a very strong message that the government will prosecute these cases,” said Wildes.Several years ago, Wildes helped to secure asylum for a former Saudi diplomat to the United Nations whose life was being threatened. Mohammed Khilewi, who had been the No. 2 man at the Saudi Arabian Mission, was made the target of a terror squad that meant to kidnap him and return him to his native land. Khilewi has made allegations that the Saudi government was planning to assassinate Washington diplomats and had bugged the offices of the Jewish Defense League. Under protection of the Capitol Police and wearing flak jackets, Wildes and the former ambassador went to Washington, where they spoke with congressional leaders about Khilewi’s need for asylum.

Asylum was granted, and more than 14,000 documents, that supported Khilewi’s allegations were turned over to the FBI. His claims are under investigation.

“I consider him a friend more than just a lawyer,” said Khilewi, who lives in a secure location and still travels under armed guard. Although he has received accolades for his work on these and other similar cases, the notoriety does come with a price: His life has been threatened several times. In some respects, danger is not new to Wildes new to Wildes, who spent 10 years as an auxiliary police officer for the New York City Police Department. He is licensed to carry a firearm in several states.

Wildes, who was born in Manhattan on Nov. 22, 1964, spent most of his life in queens, where he lived until 1995, before moving to Englewood. In elementary school, he would go to his father’s immigration law office and cut paper for use as scrap for the lawyers. As a reward, he was given a “big, fat law book” to read. “I grew up always with immigration on my mind,” said Wildes, who was raised an Orthodox Jew. It would have been difficult to think of much else.

Wildes’ father, a world-renowned expert on immigration law, started his law practice more than 30 years ago and made his name by representing a very high profile client, John Lennon. Lennon’s problem was simple: U.S. law prevented him from becoming a citizen because he had a drug conviction in Great Britain. Leon Wildes helped changed the law in the Lennon case, explaining that before Lennon, anyone with a drug conviction was ineligible to come into the United States and automatically deportable if discovered here. Pictures of Leon Wildes and John Lennon on the courthouse steps hang on the firm’s office walls and can be found in the brochures. Now, the younger Wildes represents Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono.

“It’s a source of pride for me that Michael … has followed in the practice in a way that only Michael could do,” said Leon Wildes. “I’ve always kept a very quiet profile. Even if I had high profile clients, I never capitalized on it or promoted myself or the practice. But Michael has attracted them and done well by them and truly enhanced the practice with his personality.”

Wildes’ interests go beyond the immigration. As a member of the Englewood Council for the past year, he is also involved in local politics, and he volunteers for a Jewish ambulance squad in New York City- actually leaving clients in his office when is called out on an emergency.

His desire to help people is fueled by the knowledge of immigrants’ struggles, in particular, those of his own family. And Wildes’ research into the difficulties his family faced when it came to the United States from Eastern Europe has made his daily work more meaningful. “I see hundreds of passports come across my desk throughout the course of the year,” Wildes said. “I have a very heightened sense when I review these passports. I’m reminded that my grandfather, for all his contributions to business in Germany, was regarded only as a Jew in the country.”

Wildes has been collecting information about his ancestors and has put together books for family members that include photocopies of his ancestors’ immigration papers, passports, correspondences, and even family recipes. The passports of his grandparents are marked with a “J” to identify them as Jewish. And just in case the J was removed, all male passports were marked with the name “Abraham” while female passports had the name “Sara.” Wildes said he is fascinated to learn all he can about his grandparents and great-grandparents, whom he never knew.

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