The Tragicomedy of Immigration Politics: Of Fiancé Visas and the Visa Waiver Program

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 6: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the country from the Oval Office on December 6, 2015 in Wa
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 6: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the country from the Oval Office on December 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. President Obama is addressing the terrorism threat to the United States and the recent attack in San Bernardino, California. (Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)

Poor President Obama. In his Sunday night speech to the nation, he made a mistake that confused anyone who had been watching the news closely. As Obama outlined the steps necessary to avoid tragedies like the San Bernardino killings, he indicated that he had ordered a review of the "visa waiver" program under which the female shooter arrived in this country.

The president's error, as most of us know by now, is that he should have referred instead to the "fiancé visa" program--the female terrorist's actual pathway to the United States. The White House was quick to correct Obama's mistake, but the president's fumble was understandable. Including a review of fiancé visas among our government's pillars in the fight against ISIS is like ordering tear droppers to extinguish forest fires. His speechwriters should never have included it.

The fiancé visa program has been heavily reported on since we learned that shooter Tashfeen Malik entered the United States as the fiancée of her male counterpart, Syed Farook. But the press has correctly emphasized that fiancé visas account for only a tiny fraction of visas issued by the State Department. Moreover, applicants for fiancé visas are more closely scrutinized than many other categories of visa holders.

In short, singling out fiancé visas makes no sense. If Obama had announced that security measures would be tightened across all types of visas, we could have grasped the logic. But to focus on this small piece of the puzzle is reminiscent of the post-shoe-bomber requirement to remove toddlers' slippers in airport security lines. It is reactive, not proactive, and could only be designed to feed the public what the administration thinks we want to hear.

The visa waiver program is a different matter. Indeed, Obama addressed visa waivers several sentences later in his speech. He may well have believed that visa waivers were the immigration issue of the night. The visa waiver program, which allows citizens of over thirty countries to travel to the United States without any visa at all, already had been spotted as an area of concern after the Paris attacks. Several of the Paris assailants were citizens of visa waiver countries, and similarly radicalized Europeans could slip into the United States without a visa unless they already had been flagged by law enforcement.

The current efforts at reforming even the visa waiver program appear flawed. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has been on the forefront of the calls for change. Her ask is that people who have traveled to Iraq or Syria in the last five years be precluded from coming to the United States without visas. In the meantime, the House passed a bill on Tuesday that would place restrictions on would-be visa waiver participants who recently have visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria.

Why didn't Saudi Arabia make either list, despite the badly kept secret that terrorism originates from that country? And what about Turkey, which appears to be European radicals' gateway to ISIS strongholds? The answers don't require much head scratching. We maintain an outwardly friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia because of its oil supply. Turkey enjoys the label of NATO ally. Once again, immigration policy is the football that player after player mishandles in a failed attempt at scoring some sort of security touchdown.

No wonder President Obama was confused. The smoke and mirrors of politics have obscured what really matters to combatting the very real danger of terroristic aggression. His speechwriters misguidedly plopped mention of the rather innocuous fiancé visa into a highly significant speech. And even as Washington gets down to the real business of attempting to screen people who frequent terrorism hotbeds, our representatives choose to ignore major terrorist destinations.

So goes immigration politics. It would be comedy but for the deeply tragic outcomes.