Student's visa leaves her stuck in Austria

Sarah Carrillo
Living Editor

When senior telecommunications major Desiree Pappenscheller was accepted to the Kodak Student Filmmaker Program this summer, she jumped at the chance. It meant an opportunity to work at the Cannes Film Festival in France, a dream for any aspiring filmmaker.

But for Pappenscheller, this dream turned into a horrendous ordeal that continues. Pappenscheller is an Austrian citizen, living in America since 1990 with a student visa. Upon her return to Los Angeles International Airport June 16, she learned her visa had expired and although she had a valid passport and a letter from Pepperdine saying she was a current student, Pappenscheller was forced to return to Austria and re-apply for her visa.

Unfortunately for Pappenscheller, she could not simply fly home to Austria. First she endured questioning from Immigration and Naturalization Services officials and a night in a L.A. jail.

Pappenscheller said she was taken into questioning after she attempted to go through customs with her visa and was interrogated for four hours. She was then strip searched, handcuffed and placed in a holding room for six hours and given water but no food. She was allowed one phone call, which she placed to her brother, Hannes Scherber, who had been on the flight with her.

She was taken that night to a Los Angeles detention center and in the morning was transported to another holding area to wait for 12 hours for her flight back to Austria. When she asked one of the officers for something to eat the officer responded with, “I cannot smell the fact that you are hungry.” She later received an orange and a bag of chips.

She was allowed to see her brother for a few minutes before her flight left, and he was able to give her a bag of clothes and a pack of gum. Pappenscheller’s belongings had been taken away from her and were not given back until she arrived in Zurich, Switzerland, where her plane stopped before going to Vienna, Austria.

Pappenscheller said when she landed in Zurich, she “felt like the last piece of dirt on earth.”

Now, Pappenscheller is living in Austria with family members. She has had two meetings with the American Consulate in Vienna, but both times her visa has been denied.

Pappenscheller said the consulate official told her that her visa was denied “because she no longer had ‘roots’ in Austria.” Pappenscheller’s brother and mother live in America, but she still has extended family in Austria. Pappenscheller also showed the consulate a job offer she had received from an Austrian production company but was told this was not enough. She said the consulate believes that when she finishes school she will not want to return to Austria and will permanently immigrate to the United States.

Since her first meeting with the consulate, Pappenscheller’s mother has moved to Austria and set up residency there. However, in a meeting last week, her visa was again denied, and the consulate suggested she finish her school with the Pepperdine program in London.

“As you can imagine, I am in a bit of a state of shock at the moment,” Pappenscheller said. “My entire life is in the U.S. including my family, friends and school.”

When Pappenscheller’s friends heard about her ordeal, they wrote letters to the consulate and agencies like Amnesty International to try and help.

“She’s so American, she doesn’t even have an accent,” senior Emily Montgomery said. Montgomery became friends with Pappenscheller last year and had planned to share a Drescher apartment with her this year. “I sent a letter saying all this, but after what the consulate said, I guess it was kind of the opposite of what she needed.

Provost Darryl Tippens said Pepperdine has also sent letters to government officials, including Congressman Henry Waxman, about Pappenscheller’s problem.

Before leaving for the film festival, Pappenscheller said she met with Judy Lee, associate director of International Student Services at Pepperdine, in order to ensure that all the forms necessary for her to leave the country were in order. She said Lee assured her she would be fine. After Pappenscheller was sent back to Austria, Lee wrote a letter to the consulate claiming responsibility for the oversight. Lee and her supervisor Richard Dawson, director of International Student Services, declined comment.

Tippens said the role of International Student Services is to educate students about being current in their visas and other documents, but it is not their responsibility to ensure that every international student is current. He is not aware of any redflags or cautions apparent before Pappenscheller left the country.

“It’s gotten tighter (security) in a post 9/11 world … Did we warn students enough? We’ll have to do some soul-searching there,” Tippens said.