Tuesday is the deadline for most U.S. workers to file their income taxes for the past year. Experts say more than ever, illegal immigrants are filing tax returns in an effort to establish a legal history with the U.S. government. From Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports that hopes for immigration reform are driving the change.
Each year, millions of Americans are required to file a tax return with the government, stating their financial income or losses over the past year. It is a routine process for most workers, whose employers handle their tax payments and the paperwork during the year.
Millions of immigrants working illegally in the country, however, do not have the same resources, and many do not file tax statements with the government, in part because of fear of being deported. Perla Moreno offers free tax preparation services at the World Relief charity center in Miami.
Moreno says people want to file tax returns to avoid possible legal trouble in the future, but they do not know how, and they do not have Social Security numbers. She says under the law, they should not be working.
The Internal Revenue Service says that any person working in the country should report that income in a tax return. For those workers who cannot obtain a Social Security number, the agency created an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) in 1996. But it says the numbers are intended for filing taxes and not for obtaining work authorization.
The IRS does not ask taxpayers about their immigration status, and it does not have statistics about the numbers of illegal immigrants paying their taxes. But officials say the number of people using ITINs to file taxes has risen sharply in recent years, and many of those are illegal immigrants.
Rachel Hynes, a credit associate with Accion USA, says more and more people are bringing ITINs to tax preparation clinics that the group offers in Miami.
"I think this year, we're really seeing a surge in the people that are coming to apply for ITINs, because of the immigration legislation that is being passed currently,” she said. “There is a lot of talk that if you pay your taxes, it will make it easier to get your citizenship. So a lot of people are coming and having questions about that."
Some immigration reform proposals under consideration would allow officials to review an immigrant's legal status in the country, including his or her tax history, before deciding on whether to grant residency or other legalized status.
Exela Ramirez says she has been using an ITIN to file taxes from her work as a housekeeper since she arrived here from Nicaragua four years ago. She says the hope for immigration reform is a major incentive to pay her taxes.
If you have not been paying taxes since you started working here, she says, you will have to pay all your back taxes once immigration reform is approved. If you pay every year, then it is much easier.
There is stiff opposition, however, to reform proposals that would offer legalized status to illegal immigrants in the country. Critics say workers who have entered the country illegally, but who pay their taxes cannot choose which laws to obey.
Perla Moreno of World Relief says it is a difficult decision for many immigrants.
She says the contradiction is apparent to people who are working illegally in this country, because they say they want to pay their taxes, but they know that doing so is to admit to breaking the law.
President Bush has called on Congress to approve an immigration reform bill this year. It is unclear what measures could be included in an eventual reform bill, and whether lawmakers will reach a vote on it in coming months.