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San Bernardino Shooting Puts Screening For 'Fiancé Visas' Under Scrutiny


As investigators uncover new details about the suspected shooters in the San Bernardino massacre, more attention is focused on the immigration status of Tashfeen Malik. She came to the United States in July of 2014 under a fiance visa, a special category that's granted to people who marry a U.S. citizen. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, if Malik sought the visa in order to eventually do harm, she chose a rigorous security screening process.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Each year, dating back to at least 2004, about 30,000 people are granted what's known as a K-1, or fiance visa, to come to the United States.

MARC ROSENBLUM: It's a 90-day visa.

GONZALES: Marc Rosenblum is the deputy director of the U.S. Immigrants Program at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

ROSENBLUM: And they're required to get married within 90 days. And then they become eligible for a green card.

GONZALES: But getting that permit to immigrate requires jumping through a number of hoops. It starts when a U.S. citizen petitions to bring his or her fiance from another country. One of the first things a government wants to know is whether the American citizen has a criminal record and whether the citizen met their fiance through an international marriage broker. It's just one of several checks against marriage fraud, says Palma Yanni, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

PALMA YANNI: So there's a lot of checks along the way - security checks - for this type of visa.

GONZALES: Beginning when U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services fingerprints, biometric and medical testing and security checks of both partners. If they clear that hurdle, the application goes to the State Department for another round of security checks. The fiance gets an in-person interview at a U.S. consulate or embassy in his or her country. Even after the fiance arrives in the U.S. and gets married, they have to get their temporary visa made permanent. There are more security checks, photos, biometric tests and fingerprints. After two years, the couple has to prove to the government that they are still married, and there's another round of security checks. Attorney Palma Yanni.

YANNI: So this is probably the immigrant visa application that has more security checks than any other.

GONZALES: And, she says, the whole process can take eight to 10 months, sometimes more. Still, the odds of getting a visa favor the applicant. Last year, more than 35,000 visas were issued, and only 618 were rejected. David North is a researcher with the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, a group favoring immigration limits. He says the government doles out too many of these fiance visas.

DAVID NORTH: This one is a very high rate of approval, which suggests that either Uncle Sam is Cupid or else we're handling this sort of casually.

GONZALES: In spite of all of the security checks conducted on Tashfeen Malik, Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute says it's natural to wonder whether she came to the United States with the intent of doing harm on behalf of ISIS.

ROSENBLUM: But even if that turns out to be the case, I'm not sure that that suggests that that would be their next strategy to get somebody into the U.S.

GONZALES: Nevertheless, the process for getting a fiance visa is likely to come under heavy scrutiny. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.