Utah officials said Friday they have identified at least two state workers who apparently accessed confidential documents to create a list of 1,300 purported illegal immigrants that was mailed to law enforcement officials and the news media.
Gov. Gary Herbert said the employees work for the Department of Workforce Services, which administers food stamp programs and other public benefits. The employees have been placed on administrative leave, and the state attorney general will determine whether to file criminal charges.
"It's a very small group. The people we've identified certainly have some strong political opinions and seem to be frustrated with some of the issues around immigration," said Kristen Cox, executive director for the department. "I think it's an immense hypocrisy to talk about taking people to task for being illegal and doing so by breaking the law."
Newspapers started receiving the list of names and personal information this week, and its publicity created widespread fear in the Hispanic community. The anonymous mailing said it also was sent to immigration officials. It demanded that those on the list be deported, although some named have said they are in the country legally.
"This tactic by these rogue employees to go out and to single out individuals and their families, in some case falsely accusing people of an illegal status, is in fact deplorable," Herbert said.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman acknowledged that it received the list but declined to say whether the agency is doing anything with it.
ICE won't confirm whether it has been investigating anyone unless there is some type of action such as an arrest, spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. She noted that with limited resources, the agency prioritizes its efforts on dangerous convicted criminals, not sweeps or raids that would target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately.
Cox said there may be a few more people implicated in the leak of the names, but she's confident that the core group that is responsible has been identified.
Intentionally releasing a private record in Utah is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. If someone stole such a record, it could be prosecuted as a felony with a penalty punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
"We will begin an immediate, aggressive, formal investigation," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff promised Friday on a conference call with national and local Hispanic leaders.
Herbert said accessing the private information and distributing it to federal immigration authorities is also a violation of federal law. Shurtleff said he would seek the help of the U.S. attorney's office.
"We're talking serious, felony-level crimes," Shurtleff said.
Hispanic advocates applauded how quickly the state acted to find the source of the leak and to assure the community that state policy doesn't allow for just anyone to access private information.
"The governor took the first step today to bring that trust back again," said Tony Yapias, former director of the Office of Hispanic Affairs.
Cox said most of the people are on the list because their children are receiving benefits. Herbert said there are two benefits administered by the state — food stamps and prenatal care — that would provide information that could indicate someone is in the country illegally.
The list that was mailed contains Social Security numbers, birth dates, workplaces, addresses and phone numbers. Names of children are included, along with due dates of pregnant women.
Officials continued investigating Friday even though state employees usually have the day off as part of the state's four-day workweek to cut energy costs.
Herbert, a Republican, is preparing to host a public summit on immigration Tuesday. The governor has said he will sign an immigration bill into law next year if he's still in office, but it's unclear how closely that bill might mirror one lawmakers recently passed in Arizona.
Arizona's law, which takes effect July 29, directs police enforcing other laws to determine a suspect's immigration status if there is reason to believe the person is in the U.S. illegally. The Obama administration has sued Arizona to throw out the law and keep other states from copying it.
Associated Press Writer Paul Foy contributed to this report.