The Odess Theater is seen on May 22, 2019, on the campus of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which operates the former home of Sheldon Jackson College. (Photo by Flickr user Jasperdo/Creative Commons)

The Odess Theater is seen on May 22, 2019, on the campus of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which operates the former home of Sheldon Jackson College. (Photo by Flickr user Jasperdo/Creative Commons)

Sitka Fine Arts Camp files rare immigration lawsuit in support of theater manager

The camp, which operates the campus of Sheldon Jackson College, was seeking a technical expert

One of Alaska’s premier arts organizations is suing the federal government after immigration officials blocked the hiring of a non-American theater manager.

The 50-year-old Sitka Fine Arts Camp filed suit against federal immigration officials on Friday in Alaska District Court, seeking an H-1B visa exemption for Denush Vidanapathirana, a technical theater manager in a year-round job.

The federal agencies named in the suit, including the Department of Homeland Security, have yet to formally respond. Vidanapathirana is out of the country and could not be reached on Monday regarding the lawsuit.

H-1B visas are commonly issued to technically skilled foreign workers, allowing them to work in the United States when citizens with similar skills aren’t available.

In this case, Vidanapathirana ran programs for the camp and was in charge of the Sitka School District’s multimillion-dollar performing arts center.

He holds a Sri Lankan passport and graduated from Midwestern State University in Texas. As part of his education, he took part in a one-year practical training program that brought him to Sitka as the theater manager.

Roger Schmidt, director of the Fine Arts Camp, said people with technical theater skills typically end up in major urban areas, not semi-rural Southeast Alaska.

“Alaska is — whether you’re trying to get a surgeon to work in a hospital or you’re hiring a technical theater manager — it’s hard to attract people to Alaska,” he said.

He and other staff wanted to keep Vidanapathirana on staff permanently, so they consulted an immigration attorney, Anchorage-based Nicolas Olano, who guided them through the process of filing for an expedited visa waiver, but the Department of Homeland Security rejected that request, saying it didn’t meet federal standards.

The response irked Olano enough that he took the camp’s case pro bono.

“It just rubs me the wrong way what they’re doing here,” Olano said.

H-1B visa lawsuits are relatively rare in Alaska, which made last week’s filing noteworthy, as did the participation of the camp, a broadly popular institution that operates the 145-year-old campus of the former Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka.

Schmidt said the court filing “was unusual but normal. If we have someone who we think is really valuable, we’re going to do what we can to keep them working for us,” he said.

Without Denush, as Schmidt called the camp’s former director, “we’ve had to ask people in our organization to pull extra hard and do things they weren’t planning to do.”

His absence came just as the camp was preparing for its summer series of courses during its 50th anniversary year.

“It couldn’t be worse timing for us,” he said.

“In the meantime, we’re advertising for the position – we have to fill it – but at the same time, we’re committed to following this through,” Schmidt said.

He said he’s been surprised by the calls he’s received from reporters about the issue.

“It sounds dramatic, saying that we’re going to federal court, but we’re just trying to do the right thing,” Schmidt said. “We’re not out to take on the U.S government or anything like that. We’re just trying to do what’s right.”

• James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article originally appeared online at Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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