San Bernardino shooting raises questions about fiancée visa program

A visa program American citizens use to bring their fiancées to the U.S. is facing new scrutiny after officials said Tashfeen Malik, the female shooter in the San Bernardino, California attack Wednesday, had been granted such a visa to travel to the U.S. from the Middle East last year.

The male shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, first met Malik, his wife, on a trip to Saudi Arabia in 2013 during which time they got engaged. Farook later filed a petition to obtain a U.S. K-1 fiancée visa for Malik, who was a Pakistani national.

The K-1 visa program allows a U.S. citizen to file a petition on behalf of a foreign national whom he or she intends to marry within 90 days of entering the U.S. The petitioner must meet several criteria, including that he or she must have met the other person at least once within two years of filing a petition and that any previous marriages must be terminated.

Both Farook, 28, and Malik, 27, were killed in a shootout with police Wednesday a little while after they shot and killed 14 people and wounded 21.

Two days later, a federal law enforcement source told CBS' Pat Milton on Friday that Malik had pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an online posting.

Farook's search for a wife took place on an online dating website, U.S. officials told CBS News. He met Malik and he proposed in 2013, after travelling to Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj. In 2014, Farook applied for Malik's K-1 fiancée visa, and officials say he returned to Saudi Arabia in July 2014 to bring her to the U.S.

Obtaining the visa is a two-step process, which first begins with a counterterrorism screening at DHS. Once that process is complete, U.S. consulates take over to conduct additional screenings and interview the beneficiary, who's also required to undergo a medical exam.

The U.S. consulate in Islamabad handled the second leg of Malik's application once DHS completed its end of the counterterrorism screening.

During a routine K-1 U.S. consulate interview the fiancé or fiancéecan expect questions about how many times the engaged couple have met, details about the proposal and wedding, what he or she loves about his or her partner. For some countries, more rigorous screenings are undertaken.

"I can tell you from experience that beneficiaries in Muslim countries get more scrutiny," Eric Dean, a Connecticut-based immigration attorney who has helped clients obtain K-1 visas for the last decade, told CBS News.

Dean clarified it isn't necessarily Muslim countries, but rather countries where there's a terrorism concern.

"In the Middle East, which includes Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, you see a lot more scrutiny," whereas U.S. consulates are much more efficient in places like the Ukraine, Dean said.

The process to obtain a K-1 visa, Dean said, could take as little as three to four months and could take as long as six months to over a year.

If the U.S. consulate interviews the beneficiary, conducts the medical exam, and a red flag emerges, Dean said officials enter another phase that they call "administrative processing."

That stage in the process is meant to give officials even more time to vet the beneficiary and can cause major delays in the process.

"I've had cases involving Iranian beneficiaries hung up for six months or longer for administrative processing," said Dean, who said it's a confidential process. "If they're really suspicious about something, they'll go talk to people and do a surprise visit and talk to neighbors."

Even though there are multiple layers to the vetting process, White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Friday said the standards to obtain a K-1 visa are "not as strict" as those faced by refugees entering the U.S.

Dean suggested, however, there are not as many vulnerabilities associated with the K-1 visa process compared to other U.S. visa programs.

"If you are looking for a "weak link" in the immigration process regarding terrorism, the visa waiver (especially) or B-2 visa process is probably going to be A LOT more worrisome than the K-1 visa process," he added in a follow-up email.

A State Department official told CBS that the counterterrorism check involves the collection of information from U.S. government agencies that may have relevant information.

"Biometric screening includes checks based on fingerprints and/or facial recognition software. No visa can be issued unless all relevant concerns are fully resolved," the official said. "As part of this screening process, information that might suggest an individual is a potential threat is shared with all appropriate U.S. government agencies."

The official said the U.S. has enhanced the vetting process repeatedly to improve security and identify people who pose a threat.

Fran Townsend, who served as Homeland Security adviser to former President George W. Bush, told CBS' Jeff Pegues Friday that the San Bernardino shooting was "certainly terrorism-related" and suggested that the new details about the shooters should be a wake-up call.

"This is a signal to law enforcement, that as we screen people and look at people and evaluate them, we can't treat men and women differently. This may suggest to us that this time, Islamic extremists have used a woman."

  • Rebecca Shabad

    Rebecca Shabad is a video reporter for CBS News Digital.