Nancy Lopez came to the United States 18 years ago from Mexico when she was two. While undocumented, she's an undergraduate at City College of New York and also holds down two jobs, one at school and the other at a garden center. She pays taxes on her earnings.
“What is a misconception,” Lopez maintains, “is that undocumented people don't pay taxes. The way I see it, paying taxes is the contribution to the economy and a contribution to everybody's needs.”
Lopez is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era initiative that granted temporary protected status to some 750,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. as young children. DACA allows recipients to go to school and work in the U.S.— and is renewable every two years.
Lopez is not the only DACA taxpayer in New York State. A new study shows that DACA recipients contribute $140 million in New York state and local taxes.
“Their contributions are very substantial. They're a big part of the promise for the future,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Fiscal Policy Institute Research Institute and co-author of the study. Kallick added, “I think it's not recognized enough that what they're doing is, in fact, making a real contribution.”
The study, which was co-conducted by the Institute of Taxation and Economic policy, shows that the 1.3 million young people who are eligible for DACA (not all have applied), paid more than $2 billion nationally in state and local taxes in 2015.
Taxes ≠ legal status
Undocumented immigrants pay taxes in the hopes that following the rules will weigh in their favor as they apply for permanent legal status in the U.S., even though they are not eligible for some of the benefits that taxes pay for like health insurance and pension benefits.
DACA recipient Mouhamed Kaba (28), now studying for his Master of Business Degree at NYU says he doesn't mind paying taxes.
“It is some of the revenue the city and state depend on to do more programming for the constituency,” he said.
But he wonders what is in the tax returns that President Donald Trump has not released.
“There's been some articles being circulated stating that the President doesn't pay federal taxes,” he says. “That's kind of amusing and also alerting.”
Paying taxes does not guarantee that DACA recipients will remain legal. Trump can end the program anytime, and during the campaign, he threatened to, saying during an August speech in Phoenix that he would “immediately terminate” Obama's “illegal executive amnesties.”
“In my head, the first thing that came to mind was that many people think we don't pay taxes,” said Ivy Teng Lei, 26, who was brought to America by her parents 19 years ago from Macao.
Trump softens his stance
Teng Lei both works and goes to school.
“On the night of the election,” she revealed, “I broke out in hives. With a stroke of a pen my work permit can be taken away, my job security, my future, everything I own and everything I want can be taken away.”
Trump has since moderated his stance on DACA and the program remains in place, but nothing has been said that defines its status.
In 2015, according to Fiscal Policy Institute Research Institute, America's undocumented immigrants paid an estimated $11.7 billion in state and local taxes across the 50 states.