In the era of Trump, a tax­ing con­cern

Some un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants fear fil­ing re­turns, ad­vo­cates say

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MARIA SAC­CHETTI

The un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants handed photo IDs and wrin­kled tax records to vol­un­teers in the win­dow­less of­fice, who tapped their earn­ings into cal­cu­la­tors and de­liv­ered the news:

The day la­borer owed $600 in state and fed­eral taxes. The maid, $1,130. And the house painter, a whop­ping $6,000.

“That’s rough,” Sal­vador, a 44year-old house painter from Gu­atemala, said in Span­ish, blink­ing in shock at his hefty tax bill. “But we have to pay.”

For im­mi­grants from Gu­atemala, El Sal­vador and other na­tions who are in this coun­try il­le­gally, fil­ing tax re­turns is an act of faith they hope will ben­e­fit them if Congress lets them ap­ply for le­gal res­i­dency in the United States. But in the first tax sea­son un­der Pres­i­dent Trump — who has vowed to crack down on il­le­gal im­mi­grants in part, he says, be­cause of a be­lief that they drain gov­ern­ment re­sources — the rit­ual is un­fold­ing in an at­mos­phere of in­creased ur­gency and fear.

“It’s a myth that peo­ple who are un­doc­u­mented don’t pay taxes,” Cathryn Ann Paul said as she helped im­mi­grants fill out tax forms at CASA, a non­profit group in Lan­g­ley Park. “Ev­ery time I

see that on the news, it makes me cringe.”

Fed­eral law re­quires all work­ers to file in­come tax re­turns, even im­mi­grants in the United States il­le­gally. Since 1996, those who do not have a So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber can get a nine-digit In­di­vid­ual Tax­payer Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Num­ber (ITIN) from the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice.

More than 4 mil­lion peo­ple a year file us­ing ITINs, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral records. The fig­ure nearly dou­bled in the past decade, as Congress weighed leg­is­la­tion that would have cre­ated a path to cit­i­zen­ship for 11 mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants, as long as they paid back taxes. Mary­land, one of 12 states that is­sues lim­ited driver’s li­censes to un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, will not do so un­less those im­mi­grants show proof that they have filed tax re­turns.

Some tax­pay­ers who file this way are le­gal im­mi­grants and for­eign in­vestors who do not have So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers. But most are un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants eager to se­cure a foothold in a na­tion that does not other­wise em­brace them, es­tab­lish­ing proof of res­i­dency and doc­u­ment­ing their in­comes. Like le­gal res­i­dents and U.S. ci­ti­zens, they also want to know whether they qual­ify for a re­fund.

This tax sea­son, ad­vo­cates say, im­mi­grants are so rat­tled by Trump’s pledge to ac­cel­er­ate de­por­ta­tions that some are afraid to file re­turns, wor­ried that ad­dresses and other per­sonal in­for­ma­tion on their re­turns could end up with fed­eral agen­cies ad­min­is­ter­ing the crack­down. Adding to their stress is a law that took ef­fect this year that is forc­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple to reap­ply for their ITINs.

Mary­land Comptroller Pe­ter Fran­chot has vis­ited CASA work­shops to re­as­sure un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants that his of­fice, which pro­cesses state re­turns, will not share their pri­vate tax in­for­ma­tion with Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment.

“Good God, no, and I never will,” Fran­chot (D) said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “If I have to get my law en­force­ment di­vi­sion to stand out­side the door in An­napo­lis, I will.”

The IRS echoed that sen­ti­ment last week, say­ing tax in­for­ma­tion can­not be shared with an­other gov­ern­ment agency un­less au­tho­rized by law. “The IRS has strong pro­cesses in place to pro­tect the con­fi­den­tial­ity of tax­payer in­for­ma­tion, and this in­cludes in­for­ma­tion re­lated to tax re­turns filed us­ing ITINs,” a state­ment from the agency said. “There is no au­tho­riza­tion un­der this pro­vi­sion to share tax data with ICE.”

About half of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants file per­sonal tax re­turns, chan­nel­ing $1.1 bil­lion to state cof­fers, ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute on Tax­a­tion and Eco­nomic Pol­icy. The IRS could not say how much ITIN fil­ers paid in in­come taxes last year, but past fed­eral re­ports have es­ti­mated that they paid bil­lions of dol­lars in fed­eral taxes over the past decade.

Crit­ics of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion worry that un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants are in­creas­ingly fil­ing re­turns to take ad­van­tage of tax cred­its and other ben­e­fits that, they say, should be re­served for low-in­come fam­i­lies here legally. Some states, voic­ing con­cerns about fraud, have re­fused to is­sue re­funds to peo­ple who file with tax­payer-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­bers un­less they pro­vide ad­di­tional proof of iden­tity.

“The rea­son that they’re fil­ing is to not pay in­come tax, but to get a cash wel­fare pro­gram ben­e­fit out of the gov­ern­ment,” said Robert Rec­tor, a se­nior re­search fel­low at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, a con­ser­va­tive think tank based in Wash­ing­ton. “They do pay taxes, but they’re get­ting much more in ben­e­fits than they pay out in taxes.”

Ad­vo­cates for un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants counter that they are gen­er­ally in­el­i­gi­ble for most tax breaks. Many sup­port rel­a­tives back home, for ex­am­ple, whom they can­not claim as de­pen­dents. Mean­while, un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants pay into pro­grams such as So­cial Se­cu­rity, even though they can­not col­lect that money.

“Im­mi­grants pay­ing taxes shouldn’t be a con­tro­ver­sial is­sue,” said Jackie Vimo, pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Na­tional Im­mi­gra­tion Law Cen­ter, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for low-in­come im­mi­grants and their fam­i­lies. “It brings money into the econ­omy.”

Fed­eral records show that most tax­pay­ers re­ceive re­funds, whether they are here legally or not. But on Wed­nes­day, the half­dozen un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants who crammed into a small base­ment of­fice at CASA had to pay.

Some were self-em­ployed and some were paid in cash and had not with­held enough in taxes, leav­ing them owing Un­cle Sam at the end of the year. Most earned less than $11,000 an­nu­ally. None had health in­sur­ance. And al­though they said they them­selves did not fear the IRS, some de­clined to give their last names be­cause they worry about de­por­ta­tion.

Hermenegildo Alvizurez, a gray­ing day la­borer who came here from Gu­atemala in 2008, was stunned that he had to pay $600 in taxes. He does odd jobs two or three days a week and sends money home to his five chil­dren.

“Where am I go­ing to get that kind of money?” Alvizurez, 56, said in Span­ish.

Maria, a 30-year-old maid from El Sal­vador, said she would have to set up a pay­ment plan to set­tle her $1,130 state and fed­eral tax debt. “I came here to help my fam­ily,” the Sil­ver Spring res­i­dent said. “I don’t have a lot of money.”

Ela­dia, a 50-year-old mother of four from Gu­atemala, said she has filed taxes ev­ery year since she crossed the bor­der il­le­gally in 1998. For 19 years, she said, she has lived in the same Bladens­burg apart­ment, worked for the same clean­ing com­pany and never other­wise bro­ken the law. She owes the state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment more than $1,200.

“How strange, not even the state is go­ing to give me any­thing?” she asked, as vol­un­teer Philip We­bre, a re­tired an­a­lyst for the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice, pored over her records. We­bre shook his head, and she sighed.

“I’m not go­ing to re­ceive any­thing,” she said, “But I’m happy be­cause I de­clared my taxes.”

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

An­drea Padilla, a tax co­or­di­na­tor at CASA, talks to Maria, 30, an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant liv­ing in Sil­ver Spring, Md.

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