The female suspect in Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, came to the U.S. on a K-1 visa, known as the fiance visa.
Tashfeen Malik, 27, grew up in Pakistan but later moved to Saudi Arabia, where she met Syed Farook, 28, in person. The two had corresponded through an online dating service, according to Farook family attorney Mohammad Abuershaid.
That one meeting was all it took for the pair to qualify as an engaged couple for the K-1 — one meeting within two years of the visa application. Farook would have collected evidence of that meeting and filed a petition requesting a K-1 with U.S. immigration officials, the beginning of a process that generally takes six to 12 months and includes medical, background and income checks.
A K-1 visa is easier to obtain than other visas, raising questions about the process and how potentially porous it is.
“I certainly wouldn’t rule out the potential of reforms being implemented in the future to strengthen that program, if we determine that is necessary,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday.
But David North of the Center for Immigration, a research organization that leans toward restricting immigration, said this was the first time someone admitted to the U.S. on a fiance visa had been accused of murder.
“To the best of my knowledge, we have had aliens from the Middle East killing people in the United States, or trying to do so, on tourist, student and immigrant visas, but this is the first one to be in the K-1 class,” he said.
North noted that applicants for K-1 visas are seldom denied entry to the U.S. In 2014, he said, 304 visas were granted for every denial.
The shooting “certainly means that someone has to consider it and think about" tightening the K-1 process, said Thomas Sanderson, the director of transnational threats at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s a tough question similar to the visa waiver program, which I personally think is the much bigger security threat here."
The waiver program, created in the 1980s, lets passport holders of 38 countries, 30 in Europe, use a reduced-screening system that permits them to visit the United States for 90 days without a visa.
Questions about the fiance visa program came as heated debate continues in the U.S. about the Obama administration’s plan to resettle Syrian refugees. Some critics argue the refugees pose a greater security risk because terrorists may use the resettlement program to enter the country.
White House spokesman Earnest pointed out the vetting program for Syrian requires “the most rigorous, intensive screening of anyone who attempts to enter the United States,” while the screening standards for the fiance visa “are not as strict.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote by Thomas Sanderson to another individual. We regret the error.