Utah Attorney General Weighs In On Immigration

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Utah is known as "the beehive state." And there's been a lot swarming around the issue of immigration in the state ever since two state employees were implicated in the collecting and distributing of a so-called immigration hit list of 13-hundred alleged illegal immigrants. The list included names and social security numbers. Host Michel Martin talks with Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff about where the probe stands and what potential charges could be brought against those involved with the stealing personal information.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just to remind our listeners, before the break we were talking to Gerry Reynolds. He's chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He was joining us on the phone from his office and he was talking about the case of Shirley Sherrod. She is the U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who was recently pressured to resign after comments she made at a NAACP function were made public.

We go now to Utah for an update on the story about what some people are calling the hit list. That's a document containing the names of 1,300 people with Hispanic surnames. The document suggested that these are persons who are in the U.S. without proper authorization. The list contained a great deal of personal information, the names of more than 200 children, addresses, Social Security numbers and even the due dates of pregnant women.

It was sent to the media and to law enforcement agencies by a group called Concerned Citizens of the United States. The group demanded the immediate deportation of all those on the list. Governor Gary Herbert said yesterday that two state employees, both women, were responsible for collecting and disseminating the information on the list. One was a temporary employee. She's already been fired. The other is a permanent employee who has been notified that she will be fired. She has a right to appeal her dismissal.

The governor is expected to hand over a final report about the internal investigation today to the attorney general who will determine if any federal laws were violated. So we've called him. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff�is with us now from Salt Lake City. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MARK SHURTLEFF (Utah Attorney General): Pleasure chatting with you today, Michel, thanks.

MARTIN: First of all, could you just set the table for us? I mean, a lot of attention has been focused on Arizona, where the issue of illegal immigration has surfaced in a very profound and provocative way due to recent legislation passed by the state legislature. Is the issue similarly a front burner and emotional hotly debated in Utah?

Mr. SHURTLEFF: Oh, it absolutely is, Michel, because there's - in fact I heard a lawmaker yesterday say that some 100,000 - I don't know where he got the number - 100,000 illegal aliens who were in Arizona are now in Utah fleeing that state because of laws going to effect there. We are neighbors. We are in the same transportation corridor. So there's and there will be legislation this year by that legislature and others to try and do a similar law.

We had a huge summit yesterday with some 30 participants that talked about alternatives and how we're going to address the issue here in the state of Utah.

MARTIN: Now the Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that as we reported yesterday just reported there are two women who have been identified as the people who compiled this list and disseminated this list. Are others believed to have been involved?

Mr. SHURTLEFF: You know, at this point, we're the law enforcement investigating agency. And we're waiting for the governor's office and his folks to wrap up whatever information they have and then they're going to turn it over to us. We're not going to prejudge the information. In fact, sitting here right now, I do not know the names of the two women you mentioned. And we want it that way because when we begin a criminal investigation it has to be done correctly. Innocence presumed and we're going to start fresh with whatever they hand off to us.

MARTIN: But we do understand that investigators spoke with at least eight other state employees who may or may not have had knowledge of this scheme. But none of them have been identified as being - I'm just curious, why is the governor's office the investigative arm and not yours?

Mr. SHURTLEFF: Yeah, they're not the investigative arm. What they've been doing is doing a fact finding. They're not investigating criminal misconduct. They're looking at facts. And it's similar to, let's say you were in a corporation and there was some allegation that somebody committed, you know, some theft or some kind of crime within the organization. The organization would look to see what happened and then turn that over to a law enforcement agency to begin a criminal investigation. That's what's going to happen here.

And we need to keep it separate because we represent state agencies, but in a situation like this, we want it separate. They're going to turn everything over to us and we will then begin anew. We'll talk to those people. We don't know if other people might be involved. We will do that with law enforcement officers doing the investigation.

MARTIN: What are the charges, the charges that individuals are potentially facing here?

Mr. SHURTLEFF: Yeah, this potentially is obviously all dealing with privacy laws. State and governments are charged with often keeping a lot of private information, so there are very strict laws with regard to protecting the privacy of all people. In particular where you are a state or other government employee tasked with protection of those records, and you violate that trust and somehow are involved in disseminating that information, revealing that information, there are some serious allegations, depending on how you obtain it, it could rise to the level of felony-level type crimes.

And in this case, because we're talking about medical information, potential federal laws have been violated as well. And if so, we will turn that information over to the U.S. attorney's office.

MARTIN: A member of a group called the Minutemen suggested that these employees are whistleblowers and that therefore they should be applauded for their efforts to prod the government into doing that which it should have been done already. What is your perspective on that? Do others share that point of view?

Mr. SHURTLEFF: You know, they do. Pretty much across the board this list was condemned. That includes by other members of the Minutemen, include by conservative legislators with the attitude that, you know, that's not the way we go about doing things. It's that illegal conduct does not justify other illegal conduct. And yet I'm hearing every day on my Facebook, on emails, phone calls that a lot of people are sympathetic to Eli Cawley, the Minutemen Project director who said that, that these people ought to be praised as patriots.

And our response to that is we don't allow committing crime. I mean would you justify because somebody may be here illegally beating them up, committing, you know, some other crime against them? And the answer is no. But in this situation some people feel that these people did something that was important to reveal. And that's just not the way we go about resolving this immigration issue.

MARTIN: I do take your point on that, but there are those who do wonder whether if it is in fact accurate that some of the persons on the list are here without proper authorization, will that information be acted upon.

Mr. SHURTLEFF: Well, the list was originally sent back in April to ICE. Obviously immigration is a federal issue and responsibility for enforcement and potential deportation is a federal government responsibility. Right now, I'm a state official and I'm tasked with enforcing state laws. And if any state laws have been violated in collection disseminating the list, then our responsibility is to investigate and prosecute. And that's what we're all about.

But to put out names of children and women who are pregnant and due dates and, you know, you mentioned some people are calling it a hit list. I've even used that because it appears through the cover letter that went out that it is intended to intimidate, to get people to look at each other, to watch people in your neighborhoods and to report. And to get out this personal information puts people in fear and potentially terrorizes them. And that's just, again, not the way we should go about resolving this immigration problem.

MARTIN: Well, it's also, as I understand it, we spoke earlier in the week to an activist in the Latino community there, who is a former official who said that some of it's just simply false. It's a number of people on the list are legal residents of the United States. So this isn't even true.

Mr. SHURTLEFF: That's exactly right. And that's the problem with when you put something like that out like that and it says out of the 1,300 names, only two are non-Hispanic surnames. That it does - and it says that they're all illegal and we've been watching these people and that we're watching more people. We're going to continue to collect information, encourage people to do the same. That type of response to this is not acceptable.

And the good news of it is is that as I say most people in authority, most lawmakers, most opinion leaders have condemned the list and said, you know, we need to elevate this debate. We need to go higher than this. This is not how we do things in this country. Certainly we don't want to be seeing Utah as putting together blacklists or hit lists. We got to stop the, you know, the political rhetoric and the hate mongering and the implied in an outright racism and get to the bottom of it as a problem.

The federal government continues to fail to do their job in securing the border and taking care of this problem and states are riled up about it. And we need to find, you know, Utah is not Arizona. We want to find a uniquely Utah way to deal with the issue.

MARTIN: And to that end, what happens next? You mentioned that there was a summit hosted by Governor Herbert yesterday to talk about this issue. What were some of the results of that meeting?

Mr. SHURTLEFF: Well, what we try to point out and most people agree that illegal immigration at its heart is an economic issue. And so an enforcement-only bill like what Arizona did, where it's all about just rounding people up and getting them out of here, as long as the border's not secure, it really is to no avail. In fact, it could create problems more problems for law enforcement and for protecting the public.

And so we need to look at ways to deal with the economic issues involved. With the fact that people need jobs with temporary worker permits, but to do so legally and try to drive, you know, if we pass an Arizona style law, all it does is push people into the shadows. And we want to give incentivize those who are here illegally to if they want to be here to work, to do so legally and through the legal proper channels. So that's where kind of we're going towards perhaps a Utah worker authorization permit.

And, or else, as I recommended, working with the federal government within the current H2 visa laws.

MARTIN: You've been on record favoring a guest worker program that would create, potentially, a path to citizenship for people who are living in the country illegally without proper authorization; and as we mentioned, there are other people favor a more an approach more oriented toward enforcement.

I wanted to ask, after this incident, and I know you have, you know, your perspective on it - I'm just curious how you think the debate is moving. I mean, sometimes when you have a story like this it kind of gets people to sort of change their minds and think about, more expansively. Sometimes it just hardens people's position. And I'm just wondering what effect you think this whole story has had on the political climate and on this debate in Utah.

Mr. SHURTLEFF: Well, let me just first clarify your statement. It's been reported that I'm favoring a work program with a path to citizenship. That's not accurate. There are people who want to work here who don't want to be citizens. And there are certainly those companies and industries here - farmers and ranchers and dairymen and construction labor, and so forth, who do need temporary workers from other countries to come in and fill jobs, and - without wanting to be citizens, just to work. So let me clarify that.

MARTIN: So you're saying guest worker program without a path to citizenship.

Mr. SHURTLEFF: Exactly.

MARTIN: Just a guest worker program that would regularize that kind of labor that's needed on a temporary basis.

Mr. SHURTLEFF: Similar to (unintelligible) you know, back decades ago, that it wasn't about citizenship, it was about having people come up and work and then go home, you know. And so - but, you know, your question, the bigger question is, yeah, what has been the result? And I think it has elevated the debate. It's put rhetoric aside, and people are saying, oh, this is a serious issue, we need to make a decision based on the facts. There's a lot of misinformation out there, about crime involved, about economics, about the impact of illegal immigration - that's all over the board. We need to get to the bottom of it and study the facts, and not go on passion or rhetoric.

Certainly get the anti, you know, the loud, angry hate-filled voices out of the debate, and really do something unique in the state of Utah. And I think we could be a model for how we have to approach the problem throughout the country.

MARTIN: And, finally, before I let you go, what about the question of how this information was acquired to begin with? I don't know that that's under your bailiwick, but what about the fact that these workers were able to access this kind of information as easily as they apparently did. I don't know how easy it was to do. But what about that? Is there any discussion about how that could be prevented from happening again?

Mr. SHURTLEFF: Well, Workforce Services manages a lot of federal welfare programs and federal law does allow some welfare benefits and benefits to flow to people who are even here without documents, who are here illegally. And that information is, you know, as far as personal information, is kept private, just like everybody else's. And there are strict rules about even what we can reveal.

We had to go to our legislature, get authorization, when a company reports back to Workforce Services with a Social Security number that does not match the person's name, who's in their employ, we couldn't do anything about it. We've since made efforts to be able to notify potential victims of that and we're trying to clean that up and hold the company responsible.


Mr. SHURTLEFF: But that's down the road.

MARTIN: All right, we have to leave it there for now.

Mr. SHURTLEFF: All right.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. SHURTLEFF: It's been my pleasure, Michel. Thanks.

MARTIN: Mark Shurtleff is the attorney general of the state of Utah. He was kind enough to join us from member station KCPW in Salt Lake City. Attorney general, thank you again.

Mr. SHURTLEFF: You bet.

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