The White House said Thursday that it won’t seek an immediate suspension of the “fiancee” visa program, under which the female terrorist in the massacre of 14 people in California last week entered the U.S.
“This is something that is under careful review” by the administration, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. He added that if the review by the State Department and Department of Homeland Security recommends changes to the K-1 visa program, President Obama “won’t hesitate to order those reforms.”
But he said there are no plans to halt the program during the review.
“There is more information that needs to be collected in the context of the investigation to make sure we sort of have a complete picture of what exactly happened,” Mr. Earnest said.
Tashfeen Malik, the female terrorist in San Bernardino, California, came to the U.S. from Pakistan on a fiancee visa, which allows foreigners to enter the country to marry U.S. citizens. She and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, were shot dead by police after the mass slaying.
Mr. Earnest said changes to the visa program “certainly seems the likely outcome” after federal investigators look into weaknesses in the system.
“Someone entered the United States through a K-1 visa program and proceeded to carry out an act of terrorism on American soil,” Mr. Earnest said. “That program is, at a minimum, worth a very close look.”
The House passed legislation Tuesday requiring anyone who traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan in the past five years to get a visa before entering the U.S., but lawmakers have been reluctant to revise the “fiancee” visa program.
Politico reported Wednesday that some Republicans don’t want to take steps that would discourage marriage.
In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting rampage, the administration announced steps to tighten security in the waiver program, which allows about 20 million foreigners from 38 countries to visit the U.S. annually without visas. Congress is considering several proposals to revise that program as well.
Former Homeland Security Department official Matt Mayer said traveling to the Middle East from Europe and back again without undergoing security checks “has never been easier.”
“ISIS today is likely working hard to identify a group of Europeans who can reach America with only a perfunctory security check to launch an attack,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “That cannot be allowed to happen.”
FBI Director James B. Comey testified to Congress this week that Farook and Malik began scheming to carry out an attack long before they were engaged or he brought her to the U.S. on a fiancee visa in July 2014. Mr. Comey said they were talking to each other about carrying out a terrorist attack as long as two years ago.
Malik gave a false address on her K-1 visa application, which investigators believe may have been done to deflect inquiries into her family’s suspected ties to Islamist militants.
“Our government apparently didn’t catch the false address in Pakistan she listed on her application or other possible signs that she was radicalized or an operative,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who chaired a Senate hearing Wednesday.
While federal officials examine weaknesses in the visa system, Mr. Obama has called on Congress to ban semi-automatic rifles and to ban people who are on the government’s no-fly terrorist watch list from purchasing guns. Mr. Earnest said Thursday that he wasn’t aware of any perpetrators of mass shootings in the U.S. who were on the no-fly list.
The application form for a K-1 visa asks such questions as, “Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?” and “Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization?”
Malik would have been required to check boxes for “yes” or “no” to those questions.
Mr. Earnest said it is “entirely reasonable to ask those questions.”
“It would be foolish not to,” he said. “It would also be foolish to rely only on those questions in conducting a thorough background check of those seeking to enter the United States. The process involves certainly more than just asking those questions of that individual.”