For the past two years KSRM radio listeners have become familiar with hearing the station’s top news stories delivered in a Down Under accent. But this week, the public safety announcements, political updates, developments in fishery issues and other churn of the news cycle are no longer being conveyed in the unmistakable, rhythmic cadence and vowel-heavy pronunciation of news director Catie Quinn, as her tenure at the station came to an abrupt and unexpected end at the end of last y-EAH.
On Dec. 23, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services informed Quinn her application for visa renewal was denied and she must return to Australia. She was ordered to immediately leave the U.S., the country in which she’s been working and paying taxes, and the Kenai community in which she’s been laying roots and building relationships. She’s got a one-way ticket back to Sydney booked for Jan. 27.
“It was a shock when we got the letter,” Quinn said Monday. “It’s five pages of small print, and the only things I could see is, ‘Does not satisfy … may not be appealed,’ these kinds of words. And I think, ‘Whoa, I don’t think this says what I expected this to say.’”
Quinn has been in the U.S. on an E-3 work visa, which is specific to Australians due to a trade agreement with the U.S. It’s similar to the more standard U.S. immigrant work visa, the H-1B, but it only applies to Australians so the waiting period for approval is significantly shorter and E-3 visas aren’t under the same cap as the H-1B program. The E-3 must be renewed every two years and doesn’t lead to a green card, but can be renewed indefinitely. The H-1B must be renewed in three years and is generally the first step in applying for permanent residency. If a green card isn’t issued, the maximum length of stay on an H-1B is typically six years.
Getting her initial E-3 approval to work at KSRM in 2012 was a breeze, Quinn said, done at a U.S. Consulate in Canada. She first came to live in the U.S. after high school in 2006 on a student visa to attend Colorado Christian University.
“I wanted to go somewhere and do something that really matters,” she said.
She took a weeklong trip to Alaska in 2007 and was immediately enthralled.
“I though maybe I’d like to come back and spend some time here,” she said.
Her student visa allowed 12 months of work experience, so she came to the central Kenai Peninsula and worked as an office manager in 2009-2010, while finishing her college studies in communications online.
Quinn’s student visa expired in April 2010, so she returned to her hometown of Tumut, a small town about four hours from Sydney. She started working in marketing, which morphed into a journalism job at the local newspaper. In the summer of 2011 she came back to visit the peninsula with her parents, who had their first taste of Alaska visiting Quinn in 2009.
“I stopped by KSRM, stuck my head in the door and said, ‘Hey, just wondering if you guys would have any jobs available.’ I had kind of gone everywhere — anywhere, anyone that might have anything going — and no one was really willing to even consider going through the immigration process,” Quinn said.
KSRM didn’t have an opening at the time, but Quinn stayed in touch, and when a job became available in 2012, the station worked with Quinn on the E-3 visa. First, the prospective employer must apply to the U.S. Department of Labor. Once a Labor Condition Application is approved, the prospective employee goes to a U.S. consulate to apply for the visa.
“It’s a lot to deal with, it’s a lot to have to be a part of. From what I hear a lot of companies choose not to do it just because of how consuming and cumbersome it is to bring on an employee from another country,” said Matt Wilson, station manager at KSRM.
But Quinn has been worth the extra effort, he said.
“She was gangbusters from day number one. She was an influential person not only for our news department, but also in the community when it comes to reporting and bringing the facts out about things happening in our area,” he said.
Wilson said that, to his recollection, it’s the first time the station has hired anyone with an accent to be on the air.
“So there was a learning curve,” in adapting to some pronunciations, U.S. slang and local idioms, for example, Wilson said. “… (But) in my mind her accent was a very proper accent. It was very clean, it was very crisp, it was one that I felt immediately just took the product we put out to another level, with the sophistication in the way she delivers it.”
At the time the position involved some news, some production and some programming, so they listed it as “radio announcer” on Quinn’s visa. This summer Quinn stepped into the role of news director.
“And she has just taken our news department above and beyond where it has been before. She was one of the key players covering the Funny River fire, and this year picked up several awards in the broadcasting community for her news writing and the different pieces that she’s put together,” Wilson said.
But with the letter Dec. 23, Quinn was no longer employed.
“Was it a blow to us? Absolutely,” Wilson said. “You’ve got a really, really valued employee, a hard worker, and literally within a second they’re taken away and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Quinn said that she began submitting paperwork for her visa renewal process in June, and got a request for more information in return.
“For some reason immigration wanted to nitpick. They are not convinced that this job (as listed as ‘radio announcer’) requires a bachelor’s level education, which is one of the requirements for a work visa,” Quinn said.
She submitted a description of her duties as news director, sent her paystubs to demonstrate compensation in keeping with a professional position, gathered resumes from people in similar radio news director positions around the state and got letters of support from U.S. and state senators and representatives. The supplemental information was sent off Oct. 24, leaving her nothing to do but wait.
“I literally was checking the website every single day to see if they’d made a decision yet, all the time pretty much expecting (they would approve it). The first time I went through this it was so simple. They took one look at me, they took one look at my papers — they didn’t even go through my stack of papers — and said, ‘Yeah, go ahead,’” she said.
But not this time. As she was leaving work Dec. 23 the office manager gave her the letter from immigration, saying her visa renewal had been denied, the decision was not open to appeal and she was to leave the country immediately. That spurred an immediate panic.
“I got in my car and was driving across Bridge Access (Road in Kenai) and just broke down, ‘Oh my gosh! This is not what I expected. This is not what I saw coming. I have to go back to Australia. I don’t know how soon. It says immediately, does that mean I have to book my flight tonight? Surely they can’t mean that! I have to pack my things. I don’t have anywhere to go. I don’t have any job to go to. I haven’t collected my last paycheck. My parents are here!’” she said.
Indeed, her parents, Peter, a chaplain, and Margaret Quinn, followed their daughter to Kenai in 2012. They returned to Sydney to complete their visa renewal at the consulate though the U.S. Department of State this year.
Quinn elected to save the not-inconsequential time and expense of travel, stay in Kenai and submit her renewal through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“And it seems like U.S. CIS likes to nitpick what the Department of State does, I’ve been told, as kind of a check and balance,” she said.
Quinn’s parents’ visa renewal was approved, while hers was not, so Quinn will leave them behind, as well.
“It is devastating. I’ve never cried so hard as I cried after I got that letter,” she said. “Friendships I’ve had for seven years, people who have invested more in my life than I ever expected. My family is here. Suddenly, the only contact I may have with them is email and Skype.”
Her father consulted an immigration attorney, while Quinn sought help from Alaska’s Congressional delegation — no easy task over the Christmas holiday. Staffers from Congressman Don Young’s office and the attorney said the same thing — there’s nothing to be done.
Well, nothing Quinn would actually consider doing.
“The advice I’ve gotten from everyone, from the U.S. CIS office in Anchorage to immigration attorneys, I’m not even kidding you, is, ‘Get married. That’s the only way.’ It’s not even a joke. I’ve stopped laughing now when people say that. I’ve stopped blushing when people say, ‘Well, I’ll marry you.’ And some of them are already married,” she said.
No, Quinn isn’t recruiting suitors.
“It really is about the only way, but I’m not about fooling the government. I just want to present myself and say, ‘I’m somebody who really wants to build my community and this country. I want to be honest, I want to pay my taxes, I’d love to vote. But in the meantime, just let me do whatever I can do to be here. And if you tell me to go, I will go,’” she said.
“She is a respectable person that is contributing to society, paying their taxes, she’s doing everything that she should be doing, and now she’s being deported. How does that make any sense?” Wilson said.
It’s particularly frustrating for Quinn against the backdrop of the current national politics of immigration, given President Obama’s executive order that would grant temporary relief from deportation to some undocumented immigrants.
“I’d love to see this country develop an immigration system based on character and based on people who really want to be here and how they will contribute and have evidence of how they’re going to do that,” Quinn said. “They’re about to let however many millions of illegals come out of the shadows. That’s wonderful, but what about those of us who really do want to contribute to this place and who want to pay our taxes and who want to keep everything legitimate — and there’s no path to the future for me?”
Quinn plans to return to Australia as directed. She will stay with a childhood friend’s parents to start with and look for work. But her first stop will be at the consulate to apply for another visa, as news director at KSRM. The station is currently accepting applications for the position, and plans to hold it open for 60 days.
“I’m going to start the process all over again. I refiled my paperwork with the Department of Labor. If that’s approved I will take it with me to U.S. Consulate in Sydney and reapply all over again from the beginning, and I will have to explain to them why I was denied, and why I want to be here and why they can trust that I’ll leave when I’m supposed to leave,” she said. “I will always abide by the laws of this country and immigration. I absolutely will because of character. I’m not going to hide out in the backwoods of Nikiski. But my heart is in Alaska. If they say I have to go, then I will go.”
But she won’t like it.
“I pay my taxes, I pay Social Security, I pay Medicaid — I can’t claim any of that. I don’t get a (Alaska Permanent Fund dividend). I’m reporting on politics every day, but I can’t vote and I can’t run for office,” she said. “It’s kind of a constant reminder for me — it’s a privilege to be here but there’s a lot of things I can’t do. Sure that’s frustrating, because I want to be here. I want to be part of this community. I love this place.”