The Sitka Performing Arts Center opened in 2008. Built at a cost of $18 million dollars, San Francisco architect Sergio Fisher called it “the best high school theater we’ve ever designed.” (SFAC image)

UPDATE, 8-12-23: The Sitka Fine Arts Camp withrew its lawsuit, after the USCIS decided to grant the visa to the camp’s technical theater director. Read the full story in the Alaska Beacon.

Original report:

The director of Sitka’s Fine Arts Camp says that the US Customs and Immigration Service doesn’t understand the skills and training needed to operate modern performing arts spaces.

The USCIS in May denied the camp’s request for a nonimmigrant visa for its technical theater director. The so-called H1-B visa is reserved for foreign employees working in specialty occupations in the United States.

The Sitka Fine Arts Camp has now filed suit against the relevant agencies in the US Government to reverse the decision.

Sitka’s Performing Arts Center is attached to the high school, and its utility expenses are covered by the Sitka School District. But the connection ends there.

Sitka voters bonded to build the $18 million facility, which opened in 2008. The 608-seat auditorium was designed by San Francisco theater architect Sergio Fisher, and he considers it one of his best.

He spoke with KCAW’s Ed Ronco during a visit to Sitka in 2013.

KCAW – “Is it unusual for a bit of our community like Sitka to have a facility like this?” 

FISHER – “Highly unusual. We do design a lot of high school theaters around the country. And in major cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, the San Francisco area, and the New York area. And in my opinion, this is the best, the best high school theater we’ve ever designed and so to have a community of 9,000 have a theater like this is is very, very unusual. And I’m sure people from around the states who come to perform here are probably shocked when they walk in here.”

Fisher said that he designed the room around its acoustics, and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp – which manages the facility under contract – has fully exploited its capabilities, with concerts of every kind, from cloggers to concertos, fiddlers to Freddie Mercury. That last, of course, was a Queen tribute show, which followed the Pink Floyd tribute show, and preceded the Ziggy Stardust/David Bowie tribute show.

With only 600 seats, the Sitka facility was designed for performance (rather than, say, high school graduation and assemblies). One month it might be a mind-blowing light/sound show in tribute to Pink Floyd (l.), and the next, a world-class ensemble of brass musicians in a holiday concert. Roger Schmidt believes USCIS’s failure to regard technical theater as a “specialty occupation” is not unique: “It’s not unusual for people to misunderstand the type of qualifications and training it takes to do various positions in the arts,” he says. (SFAC image)

“And so it’s always important to have a qualified person in charge of the Performing Arts Center,” said Roger Schmidt, the director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. “You don’t want anybody that’s untrained operating any of the rigging, or operating the electronics, for example, or even the lighting system. So having a qualified technical theater director at the PAC (Performing Arts Center) is a necessity.”

For the last year, the Sitka Performing Arts Center has been operated by a recent graduate with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in Theater Performance from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. The manager was working under a provision of immigration law that allows foreign graduates to spend a year in a practical training program (OPT, or Optional Practical Training). Hoping to keep him employed for at least another three years, the camp worked with an immigration attorney to apply for an H1-B visa, which covers nonimmigrants working in specialty occupations. The camp provided over 300 pages of evidence, but it didn’t pass muster. The visa was denied on the grounds that running a theater was not a specialty occupation requiring at least a Bachelor’s Degree of training, and that the title alone – technical theater director – did not make it so technical that advance training was required.

“And that’s something that we believe is a misunderstanding of the field,” said Schmidt. “It’s not unusual for people to misunderstand the type of qualifications and training it takes to do various positions in the arts.”

Schmidt says there’s an appeal process, which likely would have landed in the lap of the same person who denied the H1-B to begin with. Consequently,  the camp’s legal firm, Anchorage-based Nations Law Group, chose to go to US District court at no cost, naming US Attorney General Merrick Garland and several other top officials as defendants.

Schmidt says the camp isn’t trying to bring down the government; rather, it wants to negotiate an outcome that reverses a decision that doesn’t seem to make sense. The camp isn’t seeking damages or any award, other than legal expenses.

That doesn’t mean that the Fine Arts Camp hasn’t been hit hard. The visa was denied at the beginning of the summer session, when over 900 elementary, middle-, and high school students from all over Alaska and the country arrive for courses in everything from dance to improv — to even technical theater.

Schmidt says they’ve been stretched thin to cover the position, and they are getting by. But he’s not about to let a skilled staff member slip through the cracks of a bureaucracy that doesn’t quite get it.

“Not only are there very few people that can do it and have the training,” said Schmidt, “but furthermore, it’s really, really hard to bring people to Alaska.”

The Sitka Fine Arts Camp filed suit in the US District Court in Anchorage on July 7. The agencies named as defendants have not yet responded.

Original Report, 7-10-23:

The Sitka Fine Arts Camp is suing three federal agencies for failing to grant a work visa for the organization’s theater director.

The camp isn’t pulling any punches: The defendants named in the suit are Merrick Garland, Attorney General of the United States, along with the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and the Director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services – or USCIS – and the director of the USCIS California Service Center.

The camp alleges that its technical theater manager, who oversees the operation of the Sitka Performing Arts Center, was wrongfully denied an H1-B visa, which covers specialty occupations that require advance academic education and training to perform. 

According to the brief, which was filed July 7 in the US District Court of Anchorage, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp had previously employed the individual under an Optional Practical Training Program – or OPT – which allows foreign students to work in their specialty for one year following graduation. The individual in question had recently earned a Bachelor of Fine Art in Theater Performance from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas.

The Sitka Fine Arts Camp hoped to extend the individual’s employment by filing a petition to classify him as an H-1B nonimmigrant, which would have allowed him to keep working for another three to six years. 

The United States Customs and Immigration Service denied the application on June 16, prompting the lawsuit, which is accompanied by 359 pages of exhibits attesting to the applicant’s qualifications for H-1B status. The Sitka Fine Arts Camp argues that the agency’s decision was arbitrary, “thereby disrupting SFAC’s operations and impeding it from accomplishing its important mission of providing the youth of isolated Alaskan communities with exposure and training in the arts.” The camp is seeking a reversal of the H-1B denial, and attorneys’ fee and costs.