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Department of Workforce Services seeks to re-earn trust lost by ‘the list’

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Workforce Services said Wednesday it hopes to earn back the trust it lost when two former workers compiled and distributed a now-infamous list of 1,300 alleged illegal aliens.

Advocates for minorities and the poor, the two primary groups DWS serves, said the state agency has a long way to go — and reported that many illegal-immigrant parents are now too scared to seek assistance for their U.S.-born children out of fear doing so may lead to deportation. And others are so worried they are considering not sending children to school, advocates say.

For example, Rebecca Hall, economic justice coordinator for the Utah Domestic Violence Council, said shelters for battered women have been reporting that illegal immigrant mothers "are afraid to apply for life-sustaining services that their children are entitled to" because they worry it could lead to deportation.

"Getting those food stamps for the citizen children can make the difference between being stuck in an abusive situation and getting out of it," Hall said.

Dave Lewis, communications director for DWS, said the agency has taken several steps to rebuild trust, and plans more. For example, he said the agency sent letters to everyone on "the list" to apologize and explain what happened with their personal data.

But Sheila Walsh-McDonald, a low-income advocate with the Salt Lake Community Action Program, said many illegal immigrants were likely afraid to open a letter from DWS after "the list" and doubts that many read it.

She said those who did read the letter likely found it "too cold and technical."

Lewis said DWS plans to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate access to its databases. "If you access a case, you better have a business reason for being there" or be fired, Lewis said.

He added that the state will add more audits and random sampling of who is accessing databases to try to catch any problems that occur.

Lewis said the state is also willing to track over time whether fewer people are applying for benefits because of "the list." He said employee training is also planned on how to help those entitled to benefits to feel safe in seeking them.

Lewis added that DWS is also considering forming a specialized team to work with households of mixed citizenry.

"This probably has to be broader than DWS, it probably has to involve the governor," Walsh-McDonald suggested. "There needs to be a message that these were rightful benefits."

Lewis said that DWS has been smeared by the two former employees who made the list, and said "99.9 percent" of DWS workers follow the law and enjoy serving those in need.

He also added that DWS has been slammed by many people who believe it should have been turning over information about illegal immigrants that it collected while determining the eligibility of their U.S.-born citizen children. He said that is prohibited by law, and his agency must follow the law.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com