California killing spurs concerns about fiancé visa program
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California killing spurs concerns about fiancé visa program

Pakistani citizen Tashfeen Malik, who along with her husband shot and killed 14 people, immigrated to US legally

Survivors are evacuated from the scene of a shooting under police and sheriff escort on December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California.  (AFP PHOTO/FREDERIC J. BROWN)
Survivors are evacuated from the scene of a shooting under police and sheriff escort on December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. (AFP PHOTO/FREDERIC J. BROWN)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The woman who carried out the California shooting with her husband immigrated to the US legally last year on a special visa for fiancés of US citizens.

Authorities said Friday that Pakistani citizen Tashfeen Malik, 27, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and its leader under an alias account on Facebook just moments before she and her husband, Syed Farook, opened fire on a holiday banquet for his co-workers Wednesday, killing 14. They later died in a gun battle with police.

Malik, who had been living with her family in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, passed several government background checks and entered the US in July 2014 on a K-1 visa, which allowed her to travel to the US and get married within 90 days of arrival.

Malik was subjected to a vetting process the US government describes as vigorous, including in-person interviews, fingerprints, checks against US terrorist watch lists and reviews of her family members, travel history and places where she lived and worked. The process began when she applied for a visa to move to the United States and marry Farook, a 28-year-old Pakistani-American restaurant health inspector who was raised in California.

A CNN reporter pointing to an assortment of documents and Islamic religious items found at the California home of US citizen Syed Farook and his Pakistani wife Tashfeen Malik, December 5, 2015 (YouTube screen cap)
A CNN reporter pointing to an assortment of documents and Islamic religious items found at the California home of US citizen Syed Farook and his Pakistani wife Tashfeen Malik, December 5, 2015 (YouTube screen capture)

Foreigners applying from countries recognized as home to Islamic extremists, such as Pakistan, undergo additional scrutiny before the State Department and Homeland Security Department approve permission for a K-1 visa.

“This is not a visa that someone would use because it is easy to get into the US, because there are more background checks on this type of visa than just about anything else,” said Palma Yanni, a Washington-based attorney who has processed dozens of K-1 visas. “But fingerprints and biometrics and names aren’t going to tell you what is in somebody’s head unless they somewhere have taken some action.”

The shooting will undoubtedly have implications on the debate over the Obama administration’s plans to accept more Syrian refugees. The vetting process for refugees is similar, though not identical, to the one for fiancé visa applicants. Republican lawmakers and governors across the US, as well as advocates for stricter immigration enforcement, have challenged the effectiveness of the vetting process.

Refugees submit to in-person interviews overseas, where they provide biographical details about themselves, including their families, friendships, social or political activities, employment, phone numbers and email accounts. They provide biometric information, including fingerprints. Syrians are subject to additional classified controls.

Law enforcement officials continue their investigation around the Ford SUV vehicle that was the scene where suspects of the shooting at the Inland Regional Center were killed, on December 4, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)
Law enforcement officials continue their investigation around the Ford SUV vehicle that was the scene where suspects of the shooting at the Inland Regional Center were killed, on December 4, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)

Those who come to the US on a fiancé visa must marry a US citizen within 90 days or leave the country. Following the marriage, the immigrant becomes a conditional resident for two years and must ask the US government to remove those conditions at the end of that waiting period and undergo another background check. If the request is approved, the immigrant receives a green card. Immigrants can apply to become US citizens five years after winning a green card.

“Can we improve the system as technology grows? There is always room for improvement, but to indict the entire fiancé visa system because of this is not the right path,” said David Leopold, a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Those who intersected with Malik in California could not offer much insight, as she was rarely seen in the Muslim community.

The couple was married Aug. 16, 2014, and held their wedding reception at the Islamic Center of Riverside, said Dr. Mustafa Kuko, the center’s director. Kuko said he never met Malik because the party was divided into separate spaces for women and men.

“She never came to our mosque except once when they had their reception, and that night there were so many people around, my wife doesn’t recall exactly how she looks or who she is,” Kuko said. “We never saw her again.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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