Tashfeen Malik, the woman killed in the San Bernardino shooting, was able to enter the U.S. through a visa program for foreigners engaged to American citizens, according to federal government sources.
She received a fiancé visa, also known as a K-1 visa, which allows a foreign fiancé to travel to the U.S. for a wedding within 90 days. Malik, who was born in Pakistan and lived in Saudi Arabia, married the other suspected shooter, Syed Farook, about two years ago, a family member tells NBC news.
The fiancé visa program has one of the more rigorous security screening processes — presenting far more hurdles than other avenues for foreigners to enter the U.S.
It requires an applicant to submit a standard non-immigrant form, with personal and security questions, plus certificates from police in every country in which an applicant has lived for more than six months, a medical examination, a passport, documentation of financial support, proof of the relationship with a U.S. citizen and various fees. Applicants who are granted a fiancé visa receive a sealed file of personal and government documents, which must be kept sealed and presented to security officials upon entry to the U.S.
David Seminara, a former diplomat who authored a report about “Green Card Marriages” for the Center for Immigration Studies, said fiancé visas are not the leading security vulnerability in the immigration process.
“If you’re bringing a fiancé to the U.S., there’s more scrutiny for that than for tourist visas,” he says.
While the F.B.I. is still investigating the shooters’ motives and when they began to contemplate violence, Seminara said, as a general matter, fiancé visas are not the most attractive route for foreign terrorists.
“If I were a terrorist, and I wanted to bring myself and someone else into the U.S. quickly, the tourist visa is going to be the biggest vulnerability for that,” he told MSNBC. “The least level of scrutiny is people from the visa waiver countries,” he added.
The U.S. waives any visa requirement for tourists from about 38 countries, primarily in Europe. Under the waiver, people from those countries can come in and out of the U.S. with only an airport screening on arrival.
About 17 million people used that route to enter the U.S. in 2013, the last year federal data is available.
About 35,925 people entered the U.S. with fiancé visas last year, including 519 for immigrants from Pakistan.
Michael Wildes, a former federal prosecutor, says the fiancé visa process should be strengthened. “Part of the K-1 process is getting police clearances from other countries,” he said. “America should not be relying on third-party documents.”
Wildes, who practices immigration law, argued that as the threat evolves, so should screening for potential spouses. “I have confidence that the government will eventually get this right,” he said.
“Terrorists are no longer wearing suicide vests, they are appearing as housewives — we have to be two steps ahead,” Wildes added. “America has to have systems in place that goes further than relying on our colleague countries’ vetting systems.”
Congress created fiancé visas in 1970, amending federal immigration law to streamline the process for Americans marrying foreigners. The issue gained prominence during the Vietnam War, when some U.S. servicemembers ran into red tape while trying to immigrate with fiancés they met while stationed abroad.
Congress has repeatedly amended the program to address potential fraud and abuse, based on concerns that fiancé visas offer a coveted priority route into the U.S. Congress passed “Marriage Fraud” amendments to the law in 1986, and a separate “International Marriage Broker Regulation” law in 2005. In those efforts, much of the focus was on sham marriages, based on concerns about selling visas, as well as mail order brides and exploitation.