Gov. Matt Blunt announced the crackdown at an evening news conference that was held at the same time 25 janitorial workers were being detained by U.S. Immigration, Customs and Enforcement agents with the assistance of state law enforcement and Capitol Police.
The workers, whose nationalities were not disclosed by authorities, were employed by Sam's Janitorial Services, and detained when they showed up for work Tuesday evening. Blunt said workers in several different buildings were called together for a special meeting in one location, where they were detained.
Blunt immediately canceled the state's contract with Sam's and signed an executive order directing all state departments to audit the contractors with which they do business.
"We cannot tolerate employers who are unlawfully employing workers at the expense of honest, hard-working citizens," Blunt said. "It's robbing people who have played by the rules of opportunity," he added.
It was unclear, though, what further action, if any, would be taken against Sam's.
Democrats were quick to criticize Blunt, saying he needed to take illegal immigration more seriously to prevent such situations.
"If the governor is serious about this, let's start pursuing some legislation ... so we have good employers. Let's start punishing employers, " said Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County. Green is sponsoring and co-sponsoring a pair of bills that would crack down on hiring illegal immigrants in the state.
Sam's had employees working at nine state government buildings located in Jefferson City, Kansas City and Columbia. However, officials said the sweeps on Tuesday took place only in Jefferson City.
Officials said the apprehensions were the culmination of a month-long investigation into employees who were found to not have legal working papers. U.S. Immigration, Customs and Enforcement Spec. Agent Peter Boyd said the investigation was "focusing on identity theft," but he did not elaborate.
Blunt said that state contractors currently do monthly criminal background checks on employees, but that those checks did not detect immigration status. He said that in the future, contractors will be required to check immigration status of their employees.
Sam's had 80 employees working in buildings across the state on contracts that dated as far back as 1998, Blunt said. In Jefferson City, the buildings included the Truman State Office Building, Health Lab, James C. Kirkpatrick State Information Center and Department of Secondary Education, among other locations. It was unclear how long the suspected illegal immigrants had been working for the state.
The investigation began when Vernon Morris, the Custodial Operations Manager in the state's Facilities Management, Design & Construction department, heard rumors about illegal custodial workers and decided to look into the matter.