SALT LAKE CITY — Utah officials said Thursday they had uncovered evidence that someone used a state employment database to help anti-immigration activists compile a list purporting to identify 1,300 illegal immigrants.
Angie Welling, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gary R. Herbert, said the information in the list was “contained entirely in the Department of Workforce Services database.” She said investigators expected to turn their evidence over to the state attorney general’s office by Monday.
Workforce Services officials told NBC station KSL-TV of Salt Lake city that more than a thousand state workers had access to the database. Using state resources to compile the list would violate several state and federal privacy laws, state officials and legal scholars said.
Latino activists called circulation of the list “domestic terrorism” and called for a federal investigation Thursday.
“This is a very serious crime,” said Ernie Gamonal, vice chairman of the Utah Democratic Hispanic Caucus. “In the United States of America, we don’t make ‘black lists’ anymore. For that reason, I would like to see the Department of Justice look in and determine if they need to take further action.”
The 30-page document — which included addresses, phone numbers and birthdates for about 1,300 people it said were in the country illegally, in addition to Social Security data and medical information for a small number, such as “baby due 4/4/10” — was distributed to a wide range of news organizations and state law enforcement agencies Monday. None of the recipients has released the actual list of names, almost all of which are of Latino origin.
A cover letter demanded that the people on the list be “deported immediately” with a call to “DO YOUR JOB AND STOP MAKING EXCUSES! WE DEMAND ACTION.” It identified the senders as Concerned Citizens of the United States, a previously unknown group.
Circulation of the list was immediately denounced by groups across the spectrum of the immigration debate, including several organizations that support cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Employment database suspected as source
The Department of Workforce Services acknowledged late Wednesday that its database compiles all the information cited in the list. It said nearly 1,200 people would have access to the data day to day.
Tony Yapias, director of the nonprofit immigrant activist group Proyecto Latino de Utah and former director of the Utah Office of Hispanic Affairs, said in an interview Wednesday on MSNBC-TV’s “Countdown” that he believed the information did come from a state agency.
“It’s much too sophisticated of a list to be put together” by a group of volunteer activists, he said.
Yapias also said a woman claiming to be a state worker called him June 30 to complain that illegal immigrants were wasting state money.
Yapias said the caller, who said she was Latina and was part of a group of state workers who were angered by illegal immigration, cited specific statistics about state expenditures on pre- and post-natal care for illegal immigrants — the sort of information the Workforce Services Department said was in its database.
“Then, two weeks later, we get this list,” he told KSL.
Yapias said he had been flooded with telephone calls from Latino residents worried that they might be on the list. The biggest concern, he said on MSNBC, was that one of the news organizations would publish the list or that it would be leaked by one of the state agencies that received it.
“If that gets online — in the way that our technology works today, it could be in seconds it could be online — you could have, potentially, individuals supporting these anti-immigrant groups that could go to their homes, to their residences, and it could create a lot of problems,” he said.
“I’ve been getting calls all day long with regards to what should they do. Should they move from the address where they’re at, go somewhere else, stay with families?” he added. “So this has really had a tremendous impact in our community.”
Widespread legal liability feared
State officials and specialists in privacy law said that if the information came from a public agency, several state and federal laws could have been broken.
Legal scholars said those responsible could also face lawsuits from anyone misidentified as an illegal immigrant. State officials said they could not confirm the accuracy of the information in the list, and several people interviewed this week by KSL said they, in fact, had legal status.
Such people “could have a claim for defamation because someone has made false statements about them,” said Emily Chiang, a constitutional scholar at the University of Utah law school. “They’re private people, and the statements, if you can prove that they’re false, you might have a damages claim against whoever sent the letter.”
Brian Barnard, managing attorney of the nonprofit Utah Civil Rights & Liberties Foundation, said that if the information was collected by the government for government purposes, “it’s supposed to be protected by government. If it was illegally accessed to create that list, that’s a crime, and it’s something that government should be concerned about.”
Bernard’s concern was shared by state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, who is drafting a Utah version of the controversial law in Arizona that cracks down on illegal immigration.
“I think it’s a wrong approach,” Sandstrom said. “It sends the wrong message, and it doesn’t follow the rule of law with the bill that I’m writing.”
Ronald W. Mortensen, a co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, agreed, saying circulation of the list “wasn’t an appropriate action.”
Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, called on whoever compiled the list to come forward and disclose where the information came from.
“These people seem to be concerned about identifying people who are breaking the law,” he said. “They should identify themselves and tell us whether or not they broke the law.”