'Outing' illegal immigrants: Utah grapples with 'listgate'

The release of a list of 1,300 alleged illegal immigrants in Utah comes as the state debates a strict immigration law like its neighbor Arizona's.

By , Staff writer

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    Gov. Gary Herbert and Kristen Cox, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, hold a news conference to discuss an alleged illegal immigrant list at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday.
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How can Utah move forward from "listgate"?

That is among the questions community leaders are pondering as Gov. Gary Herbert gathers 30 of them for a roundtable discussion of immigration on Tuesday.

A 29-page list of 1,300 people accused of being in Utah and the US illegally was mailed anonymously to media outlets and law enforcement agencies last week. It included Latino names, addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, and private health information such as the due dates of babies.

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Two state employees – identified within the Utah Department of Workforce Services and already placed on administrative leave – could face criminal charges in connection with the list’s release. And state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says his office is still investigating further leaks.

Intentionally releasing a private record in Utah is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and $1,000 fine. If the record was stolen, the crime could be prosecuted as a felony and carry a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Beyond illegality, immigrants rights and other Hispanic groups say the release of the list is just morally wrong.

Mr. Shurtleff likened the list's release to Nazism. “You replace 'Mexican,' you replace 'illegal alien' … with 'Jew,' and use that same kind of language – that was spread throughout Nazi hit lists in Germany,” he told Utah's KSL-TV on Friday.

Immigration experts say the list episode highlights the fact that anti-immigration forces feel more emboldened these days, having succeeded in getting local and state governments to take a much more aggressive posture toward illegal immigrants.

Indeed, nearly 200 immigration-related bills passed state and local legislatures between 2007 and 2009, in 40 states and ranging in topic from law enforcement and employer verification to identification and licenses, according to Catherine Wilson, an immigration specialist at the political science department at Villanova University.

Whatever motivated those who compiled the lists – some suggest the public's patience with the federal government's failure to enforce immigration laws and protect the interests of American workers and taxpayers is wearing out – the plan may have backfired. Its release may cause a backlash that harms the cause it sought to boost, immigration experts say.

“Popular movements can become extreme and produce blowback, and the illegal release of names in Utah may do that,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. “Conspicuous violation of the law is always controversial and takes the focus off of the problem of illegal immigration that the disclosure was about in the first place," he says. "So in that sense, it’s counterproductive.”

Governor Herbert’s two-hour meeting is intended to bring together both sides of a brewing battle on how Utah should address undocumented immigration.

On one side is Rep. Stephen Sandstrom who is pushing a bill similar to Arizona’s tough new law that allows law enforcement to verify the citizenship status of those they stop under suspicion of other crimes. On the other is Shurtleff, who wants to implement a state-sanctioned guest worker program with potential paths to citizenship.

Whether the summit can achieve anything is up for debate, as both sides seem to be approaching it cautiously.

“I hope this meeting can achieve a mutual understanding that neighbors reporting on neighbors illegally is not the kind of country we are – and that we can avoid the stumbles that Utah and Arizona have made and adopt a better immigration policy,” says Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel for The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The meeting's length troubles Jonette Christian, founder of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy. "Immigration is complex, she says, "with enormous longterm ramifications to the country. A two hour discussion with 30 people? Four minutes each? That sounds like a blueprint for shallow slogans and soundbites – we've had enough of that already," says Ms. Christian.

But others remain optimistic that progress can emerge.

"Meetings of all interested parties is the only thing that will work,” says Barbara O’Connor, emeritus director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “Clearer heads will prevail and they will police their own and stop the injustices from escalating.”

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