Immigration Experts, Republicans Raise Alarm Over Synagogue Terrorist's Visa

A law enforcement vehicle sits in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on January 16, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas
Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after the Jan. 16, 2022, standoff / Getty Images
January 19, 2022

Republican lawmakers and immigration experts are demanding answers from the Biden administration on how the terrorist who last weekend took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue entered the United States.

U.S. officials confirmed Tuesday that Malik Faisal Akram, who died after law enforcement stormed the Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on Saturday, was on an MI5 watch list in 2020. That fact, as well as Akram's previous arrests, should have blocked his entry into the United States, according to immigration experts and lawmakers.

Immigration experts, including former Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief of staff Jon Feere, called for an investigation into the Biden administration's changes to the vetting process of visa applicants. In his second month in office, President Joe Biden revoked an executive order from his predecessor that implemented a more rigorous vetting process for visa applicants. That executive order conducted for the first time ever a review of all countries' data and info-sharing systems. The order, advocates say, resulted in visa cooperation between the United States and other nations that was overdue.

"Biden and his staff don't understand the need for better vetting, but I'm hopeful this case opens their eyes," Feere told the Washington Free Beacon before he called for the White House to release all the details on Akram's immigration history. "Only with a commitment to transparency can policies and practices be appropriately adjusted so that a similar incident is less likely to occur in the future."

Details on what kind of visa Akram used to enter the United States remain unclear. A conviction of a crime in the United Kingdom would bar an applicant's entry into the United States, raising the question of whether Akram lied on his application. Travelers from the United Kingdom usually benefit from the Visa Waiver Program, which allows tourists to travel to the United States with less of a security background check.

The State Department announced in December that it would temporarily waive the interview requirement for roughly 49,000 immigrant visa applications due to the surge of migrants and asylum seekers trying to enter the United States. Shortly after, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would waive the interview requirement for spouses and children of certain migrants who receive work visas.

Akram's ability to travel to the United States has sparked outrage from Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas). In a statement to the Free Beacon, McCaul said that "the hostage situation should make all Americans question how an individual with a criminal past could get into this country."

"It's unfortunate that partisan politics have driven President Biden to revoke the Trump administration's executive order to bolster information sharing within the DHS," he said. "This move could have weakened the Department's ability to prevent bad actors, such as Akram, from entering the United States."

Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) on Tuesday sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas that blasted both departments for "either … knowingly [allowing] entry to someone with demonstrated sympathies for terrorist organizations and a predilection toward violence … or [failing] to conduct even a cursory background check."

"It is past time to begin conducting in-person vetting of immigrants to this country," Hawley wrote. "That is what the 9/11 Commission report strongly recommended. It should now be clear that this is necessary to protect U.S. citizens from terrorist attacks on U.S. soil."

The BBC reported on Tuesday that British authorities no longer considered Akram a risk when he entered the United States in late December, although he had "previous criminal convictions." Biden said over the weekend that Akram spent his first night in the United States at a homeless shelter and illicitly purchased the handgun he used in the attack.

"Why was he granted a visa? How did he land at JFK Airport and not get stopped for one second?" Akram's brother asked in an interview with the New York Times.