PAPER JAM

San Bernardino Terrorists’ Visa Story Doesn’t Add Up

Tafsheen Malik got into the U.S. on a fiancée visa, but friends say she was already married. Did she and Syed Rizwan Farook lie to get to America faster?

12.08.15 11:57 PM ET

When Tafsheen Malik, of the two San Bernardino shooters, entered the United States in July 2014, she did so using a temporary visa meant for people who are engaged to be married to U.S. citizens.

But according to friends, she was already married to Syed Rizwan Farook, with whom she later murdered 14 people.

That Malik was able to gain a K1 or “fiancée visa” when she may have already been married raises questions about whether she and Farook lied to U.S. authorities during the visa application process, possibly in order to obtain faster entry into the U.S., according to an expert on the visa process. 

Friends of the couple have said they were married in Saudi Arabia in 2014, after meeting online.

“If they were in fact married in Saudi Arabia, they wouldn't have been qualified” for the fiancée visa, Kyle Marvin, a manager with RapidVisa, a Colorado company that helps with the application process, told The Daily Beast.

Fiancée visas aren’t trivial to obtain. The applicant must have a face-to-face meeting with a U.S. consular officer, submit biometric information, and undergo a background check. The whole process can take five to six months. Of the 9.9 million non-immigrant visas issued in 2014, only 36,000 were for fiancées of U.S. citizens.

People who legally marry a U.S. citizen in a foreign country must obtain a different visa, meant for spouses, and that can take two months longer to obtain than a fiancée visa, Marvin said.

The K1 process has come under scrutiny in the wake of the shootings, with President Obama ordering the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to look for any security gaps. The ambiguity surrounding Malik’s status could add to concerns that the program isn’t adequately screening applicants who might exploit the visa process.

A U.S. official told The Daily Beast that the precise legal status of the couple’s relationship when they entered the United States is still unclear. The couple flew to the United States on a flight from Saudi Arabia, but Malik’s U.S. visa was issued in Pakistan.

Once Malik was in the U.S., the fiancée visa allowed her to stay for 90 days, and if she married, to apply for a conditional green card that would let her stay for two more years. If they were still married at the end of two years, she could have applied for a permanent green card.

People who knew the shooters have told reporters that they were married in Saudi Arabia sometime in 2014, one friend telling CNN that the couple wed in a religious ceremony.

If that’s true, it’s not clear why the couple didn’t apply for a visa as a married couple, which, though it takes longer to process, is easier to obtain, Marvin said. A couple need only submit evidence of a legal, government-recognized marriage (a marriage license), whereas engaged people must show photographs or other evidence that they’ve lived or traveled together to establish that they’re truly a couple that intends to wed. 

If Malik and Farook were legally married in Saudi Arabia, then they would have lied to consular officials when obtaining the fiancée visa, Marvin said.

However, if the couple were married in a religious ceremony not recognized as legally binding by the Saudi government, they might not qualify for the spousal visa. In that case, it’s possible they applied for the fiancée visa knowing their marriage wasn’t legally recognized.

Couples who are married in ceremonies not recognized by the state cannot obtain spousal visas. And Marvin said that if Malik and Farook had tried to obtain one, they would have been denied, and found it harder to apply subsequently for a fiancée visa.

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Regardless of whether the couple was married legally or not in Saudi Arabia, in order for Malik to be approved for a green card in the United States, they had to obtain a marriage license here--which is what they did, on Aug. 16, 2014, in California.

“They would have certainly had to marry here in the U.S. to be approved for a green card, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the fact that they had to falsify the visa petition if they did in fact marry in Saudi Arabia,” Marvin said.

Malik applied for a green card the month following her U.S. marriage and eventually obtained the document in July 2015. She had to pass through security checks and background screenings, none of which raised any red flags or negative information, federal officials have said.

As investigators pored over the couple’s past, the House of Representatives voted Tuesday to limit the ability of foreigners to travel to the United States without visas, as part of the so-called waiver program, including people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Sudan.

“The reforms we are voting on today are reasonable, appropriately targeted improvements to this important program,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on the House floor in support of the measure, which passed overwhelmingly, 407 to 19.