Inside the Announced Security Updates to the Visa Waiver Program


In a recent speech on counterterrorism efforts, President Obama announced plans to increase scrutiny for the visa waiver program that San Bernadino shooter Tashfeen Malik entered on. In actuality, the program the Obama Administration plans to make changes to is not the visa waiver program, but the K-1 visa program, or the “fiancée visa” – it was later discovered that the president misspoke.

To clarify, here is a quick breakdown of the two programs and the plans for change:


The visa waiver program is a travel incentive that permits citizens of participating countries (38 in total) to enter the U.S. for up to 90 days without any visa. Participating countries, most of them European or otherwise generally considered “Westernized,” have strong allied relationships with the United States. Although this was mistakenly referenced in the President’s statement, there are no proposed changes to this program.


The K-1 visa, or fiancé visa, is a program that specifically allows foreign nationals into the U.S. with the understanding that they will be marrying a U.S. citizen within 90 days of arrival. This program carries a heightened sense of scrutiny as it stands because of its potential for abuse through fraudulent engagements used to enter the United States.


Applicants are required to undergo extensive background checks and security clearances before entrance, as well as prepare long applications and interview that demonstrate the validity of the relationship. It often takes between 8 months and a year to review and approve applications for K-1 visas.

State Department officials stressed after the San Bernadino shootings that K-1 visa applicants are screened for connections to political radicalism. Mark Toner, spokesperson for the State Department, said in a press conference on Thursday, “Since 9/11, all of these involve multiple layers of vetting with multiple agencies putting folks through various systems, where we watch individuals, what their affiliations are, whether they’re on any kind of watch lists. All of this is done for any visa applicant.”

Despite extensive interviewing and screening, the program can’t realistically screen for political radicalization that happens once applicants enter the United States. Maurice Goldman, an immigration attorney in Tuscon, AZ, discussed this with the Los Angeles Times by saying, “If someone has a perfectly clean record and absolutely no evidence of ties to terrorist groups or organizations … how do you detect that all of a sudden they are going to leave their 6-month-old and go put body armor on and thousands of rounds of ammunition and go shoot up a facility like they did?”


The Obama administration has ordered a review of the K-1 visa program after it was determined that one of the shooters at a social service agency in San Bernadino was admitted on this visa. The Department of Homeland Security will be charged with assessing strengths and gaps within the program. It is believed that this review may enable the administration to tighten scrutiny for K-1 visas for applicants coming out of countries with known or suspected ISIS influence. Panic in the U.S. since the massacres in Paris has been on the upswing, especially with regards to both immigrants and refugees entering from countries in the Middle East. Though this review was brought about in large part by this panic, U.S. officials will hopefully be cognizant of the potential for discrimination in these programs based on sensationalized panic over ISIS and stereotypes of “terrorists” within the United States.