Homeland Security officials confirm they’re reviewing what’s known as the K-1 fiancé(e) visa program, used by U.S. citizens to bring over foreign brides and grooms.
In 2014, the United States granted 35,925 K-1 visas; one bride arriving on the K-1 that year was Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino last week. Malik, a native of Pakistan, entered the U.S. in July of that year.
Yesterday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Leon Rodriguez told the House Judiciary Committee that his agency is reviewing the program along with all recently approved fiancee visas. From a transcript of Rodriguez's statement:
The president and secretary have both directed USCIS to review both the K-1 visa program as a whole, which we are in the process of doing right now, but also to do a retrospective look at cases approved in recent years under the K-1 visa program. We are fully along in conducting that effort.
A USCIS spokesman said retroactive case reviews will go back at least to December 2013.
In his statement to the committee, Rodriguez said the agency would look for security flaws in other visa programs as well: "So while we are focusing on the K-1 today, I want to make clear to the committee, and importantly also to the public, that our focus will be across all lines of business to ensure that bad guys do not gain admission to the United States."
Federal officials say the screening process for the K-1 visa is no less tough than for any visa applicant. Biometrics and background checks by multiple agencies are required, along with consular interviews and records from the individual's native country.
"They will need police certificates, certification about any prior criminal history," said Ashley Garrigus, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of State, which along with USCIS vets applicants approves their visas. "They also will need a medical examination, which will most likely happen in the home country."
Couples must also provide documentation that there is an actual relationship, and that marriage fraud is not taking place. That said, the program can be exploited, said Alma Rosa Nieto, a Los Angeles immigration attorney who works on K-1 cases.
"Have I seen some clients in my office that later come back and say, 'she left me, I got her green card for her and she left me shortly after?' Yes, I’ve seen it," Nieto said.
Federal officials won't say what could happen to people whose reviews turn up red flags, like a national security concern or suspicion of marriage fraud. But chances are the reviews will make tens of thousands of people who've entered on K-1s in recent years nervous, Nieto said.
"That is a scary thought for people that have absolutely no ties to terrorism," she said, "and hopefully it will flesh out somebody that does. However, someone with radicalist thoughts is very hard to detect, no matter how many filters you put in.”
The K-1 process does provide a fast route to a green card. Nieto said the application-to-approval period can range from six months to a year. K-1 entrants must marry their U.S. partners within 90 days of arrival. After that, their partners can file to adjust their status to legal permanent resident.
Tashfeen Malik became a conditional legal resident this past July, just a year after she arrived.
Many of those who have entered since December 2013 will be married by now, and may already be legal U.S. residents. But this doesn't guarantee those with a security or fraud issue will be off the hook.
"If...immigration finds that there was any kind of misrepresentation or fraud leading up to a grant of a benefit, they can always reopen a case," Nieto said.
Even before the San Bernardino shootings, the White House and both houses of Congress were looking at ways to tighten rules for people coming into the country. The White House recently announced restrictions to the visa waiver program, which lets people from 38 countries enter the U.S. with minimal inspection. House and Senate lawmakers have proposed their own legislation.
But it's logistically impossible to screen out every bad apple, some say. In 2013, roughly 173 million people entered the United States on non-immigrant visas, of which the K-1 is one of many.
"When you add all these different categories of people trying to come into the United States...you cannot have a process in place that is as good as you would like," said Peter Nuñez, a former U.S. Attorney based in San Diego who has taught college courses in transnational crime and terror. "It doesn't matter what kind of visa you are talking about."
On Tuesday, the House passed a bill 407-19 to restrict the visa waiver program, including a provision that prohibits visitors from the approved list of countries from entering the U.S. without a visa if they have been to Iraq, Syria, Iran and the Sudan within the past five years.