Reporting from Seattle — Since the distribution of an anonymous letter this week containing the names, addresses and other personal data of more than 1,300 Utah residents said to be undocumented immigrants, Tony Yapias' phone has not stopped ringing.
"I have one phone line; I've already missed 60 calls now, and there are 72 messages," said Yapias, director of the advocacy group Proyecto Latino de Utah. "People wanting to know if they're on the list. Should they move to another state? Should they leave the country? Horrified, scared, whatever language you can put on it."
The office of Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, announced Thursday that an investigation into the list was focusing on the possibility of an unauthorized release of information from the state Department of Workforce Services, which collects information on unemployment benefits, food stamps, Medicaid and other government programs.
"It appears that all the data on that list are contained within that agency's database, and they have found some evidence of inappropriate access, so they're drilling down on that as we speak," Angie Welling, the governor's communications director, said in a telephone interview.
A team of 10 state information technology specialists is examining who gained access to or printed out data that might have ended up on the list, which includes birth dates, addresses and in some cases Social Security numbers.
That information will be handed over to the state attorney general's office to determine whether a crime was committed, Welling said.
"These people [who distributed the list] are very interested in making sure that we disclose the names of people they think are breaking the law. I think it's only fair that they disclose who they are, and tell us why they didn't break the law," said Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah attorney general's office.
Intentionally disclosing a private record or gaining access to such a record under false pretenses could be prosecuted as a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail, Murphy said. "It could be as much as a third-degree felony, meaning up to five years in prison, if the custodian of the records actually stole the records," he added.
Federal authorities also are examining the list because, in some cases, it contained Social Security numbers, said Jonathan Lasher, assistant inspector general for external relations for the federal Social Security Administration.
The mysterious list, accompanied by an unsigned letter demanding that those whose names appear on the list be immediately deported, appeared as some residents are pushing Utah to join Arizona in stepping up state enforcement actions against undocumented immigrants.
A bill similar to Arizona's new immigration law is expected to be introduced in Utah's Legislature next year.
The list, originally given to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Salt Lake City in April, was redistributed this week with additional names to legislators, police chiefs and Utah news organizations, accompanied by another demand that public officials take action.
"We ask that you remember who you work for in this country — you work for America and for the citizens in the state of Utah. You DO NOT work for illegal immigrants who have come into our country illegally and who now take advantage of our system," it said. "They need to go — and go now."
Yapias said some of those whose names appear on the list have been confirmed as legal residents. He said there are fears the list could reach extremists who might use it to intimidate or harass those on the list.
"Politically, we can agree to disagree," Yapias said. "We can say both sides of the issue have been going at it passionately at every level. But to begin a new level of terrorizing families, that's not right. I mean, it's un-American — whatever word you want to find for it, it's just wrong."
Most of Utah's major immigration activist groups have denied any role in distributing the list. Some have condemned it.
"Our position is it was inappropriate to compile or release the list," said Ron Mortenson, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, which has advocated for legislation to crack down on identity theft for the purposes of obtaining false immigration documents.
"We see it as a rule-of-law issue," he said. "The fact is we expect everyone to comply with the law, illegal aliens and American citizens…. If it's a political issue, you address it through the legislative process, not through some extralegal method."