Washington, Dec 5: The woman who carried out the San Bernardino massacre with her husband came to the US last year on a special visa for fiances of US citizens, raising questions about whether the process can adequately vet people who may sympathise with terrorist groups.
Authorities said yesterday 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 on 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.
Foreigners applying from countries recognised 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 fiance 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. Those who come to the US on a fiance 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.