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Burmese refugees question letters from immigration officials

In a packed room Saturday, dozens of refugees from Burma gathered to learn more details about mysterious letters they’ve received from immigration officials asking them to appear for an interview and provide information that validates their status.

The meeting, held at Polk County River Place by EMBARC, an organization that supports Burmese refugees, guided them through questions about the letters and why it’s best for to be prepared before deciding to appear for an interview with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Department.

“They want to do what they’re told to do,” said Chris Rottler, a volunteer attorney with EMBARC. “The problem is, we just don’t know. We don’t what the intent of the investigation is or how they plan to use that information.”

In Iowa, as many as 10,000 refugees from Burma, also known as Myanmar, have settled across the state and have culturally and religiously diverse backgrounds. Many of them fled the world’s longest-running civil war, dating to the end of British colonial rule in Myanmar in 1948.

They have already gone through the refugee process and many are citizens, permanent residents, or already have green cards.

Rottler, who assisted a refugee with an interview with a USCIS official in Des Moines, said it went unexpectedly long — around two and a half hours.

The official also declined to provide much information about what the statement would be used for, but did say it was going to be compared to the refugee’s immigration file. However, many of the refugees came to the U.S. years ago and may not remember the exact details of what they said a decade ago.

EMBARC volunteers helped the refugees fill out Freedom of Information Act forms to request their immigration files, so if someone does decide to attend an interview, they can be prepared.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen something like this from USCIS,” he said.

Gen Langh, a Des Moines resident and interpreter from Burma, helped translate for a refugee who came from Indiana to Des Moines for an interview.

He said she was unsure of what was going on and didn’t expect the interview to last for hours.

“They were very scared and panicked,” Langh said. “It’s mixed emotions.”

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