The day before Christmas Eve, the news director of the KSRM Radio Group on the Kenai Peninsula received a letter in the mail stating she needed to leave the country. Three days later, the station's news was delivered with an Australian accent for what could have been the last time.
Catie Quinn's options have nearly run out. For months, she struggled to convince U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to let her stay, but in the end, her request was denied. The federal department declined to renew her E-3 work visa, which is specific to Australians.
The visa requires its holders "perform services in a specialty occupation," one that requires a specific pool of knowledge and at minimum a bachelor's degree. The immigration agency found that a news director does not require a college education, prompting Quinn's reluctant departure from Alaska.
"The funniest thing in all this is (that) the advice I've gotten, including at the (immigration) field office, is 'get married,' " Quinn said in a phone interview as she took a break from packing her belongings. "They suggest that's pretty much the only way I can get a permanent visa. Everyone's answer is, 'Go get yourself a handy Alaska man.'
"If I eventually want to marry someone I will, but I'm not going to cheat the system," she said.
I could breathe
Quinn is from the small rural town of Tumut, Australia, located in the southeastern region of New South Wales.
She attended college at Colorado Christian University on an F-1 student visa. The visa allowed for one year of work experience after graduation, and she found employment as an office manager in 2009-2010 on the Peninsula.
Quinn said she discovered something here that she found unattainable in Australia: a freedom of expression that she says is suppressed in the land down under.
"I'm trying to say I could breathe for the first time," Quinn said. "People where I'm from don't express themselves that much. We play rugby and cricket, go the beach, then the pub, and have a few beers. We're nice people, but that expression is a little bit stifled somehow."
Before making her way to Alaska, Quinn worked as a journalist at Tumut's local newspaper. In the summer of 2011, she visited the Peninsula with her parents. She was also looking for a job. KSRM was not hiring at that time, but she stayed in touch until a position opened up in 2012.
The process and the denial
Quinn's first experience with the visa process was easy. With an approved labor condition application in hand, she visited a U.S. consulate in Canada. Applicants must visit a consulate, not a U.S. office, in person when applying for an E-3.
In retrospect, the face-to-face contact smoothed the application process, Quinn said. For her renewal, she sent the appropriate paperwork to the Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Vermont. The application was denied twice due to technical issues and accepted on Quinn's third attempt, but the department sent a letter in late October requesting more information about her job.
Quinn's first visa was set to expire in two weeks, and she was feeling a little nervous. She drove to Anchorage and paid a visit to the local immigration services office. She said officials there told her that as long as the visa status was pending, she could stay in the country.
Work continued, including late nights at the end of the year as the station wrapped up annual projects. On one of those nights, Quinn said, she went home and found the letter ordering her to leave the country.
Among the reasons for denial, the letter states, "The (Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook) does not indicate that a baccalaureate degree in a specific field of study is the minimum educational requirement for these positions as is required for them to meet the criteria of a specialty occupation."
Quinn said the decision is "mind boggling."
"On a daily basis, I'm working with the highest level of government, digging into issues and breaking it down into simple terms to keep our community informed," she said. "I don't understand how they don't see what I do as specialized. They would admit me if I were an English teacher."
Citizenship and Immigration Services public information officer Sharon Rummery said the department denies E-3 visas for various reasons. It does not separate the reasons for doing so in its data collection, so she could not say if other journalists have been told to leave the country.
Rummery noted that the H1-B(c) visa, the more common immigration work visa, uses similar criteria for specialty occupations.
Quinn could apply for an H1-B. The process can take years, rather than months. And the E-3 can be renewed indefinitely, a route Quinn believed would work to her advantage. The Australia-specific work visa does not serve as a path to a green card, however.
An open position
Matt Wilson, general manager of the KSRM Radio Group, which operates five stations in the Kenai-Soldotna area, said Quinn's visa denial has cost the organization a reporter who also directed the newsroom.
Wilson said Quinn provided seven to 10 stories per day and guided two other employees. He said he believes her job was a specialty occupation. The news director position has expanded in recent years to include not only reporting news but managing the company's presence on social media.
KSRM has listed Quinn's job as available. Wilson said they're looking for someone with a journalism, broadcasting or communications degree to fill the spot. However, the degree can be replaced by three years of experience in a similar position.
That caveat is listed as one of the reasons Quinn's renewal was denied. USCIS noted the job descriptions she provided say a degree is not required for entry into the professions of announcers, news reporters and correspondents. Also, it said Vermont Public Radio, another station to which Quinn had applied before making the Peninsula home, "makes no education requirement."
Either Im coming back or Im not
Quinn plans to fly to Australia and start the application process over from square one, if her last-ditch effort of applying for a national interest waiver -- which requires that the work being performed in the U.S. is "in an area of substantial intrinsic merit," is "national in scope," and benefits the national interests of the country -- fails.
Alaska politicians have sent her letters of support, she said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski provided one such letter. Murkowski's communications director Matthew Felling said in an email that the senator's constituent relations office spent hours with Quinn on the phone to help inform her of possible options. He said Quinn's professionalism and work ethic are top notch.
"She embodies the mindset of so many of us Alaska reporters, by jumping in and immersing oneself not only in the subject matter but all the logistics of the newsroom and new technology," said Felling, himself a former journalist. "Did she have a specialty? Yes, her specialty is that of many journalists of the 21st century: do-it-all-yourself journalism."
Quinn said she intends to keep her job.
"I'm trying to deal with this as quickly as possible and give my bosses a definitive answer. Either I'm coming back or I'm not."
As of Monday, Quinn said a community party is set for Thursday at Paradisos Restaurant in Kenai, where residents will be able to offer written comments about why Quinn's work is of national interest. Peninsula residents have been "unbelievably" supportive since news of Quinn's visa denial came to light, she said.
If the waiver doesn't come through, Quinn has a plane ticket to depart the U.S. on Jan. 27.