Foreigners who temporarily worked in the U.S. and mistakenly received federal stimulus checks are expected to return the money to the Internal Revenue Service, legal experts told VOA.
Thousands of foreign workers are believed to have found $1,200 in their bank accounts or received a check signed by President Donald Trump in the mail. Some reportedly have spent the money while others are taking steps to ensure their visa and immigration status is not imperiled for having received it.
“Now you’ve got a bunch of people out there wondering, what are they supposed to do? And what they're supposed to do is return [the money] to the IRS,” Janet Holtzblatt, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, told VOA.
Holtzblatt explained that most foreign workers must use the 1040-NR form when they pay taxes. The NR stands for nonresident.
“But it appears that some people were confused. … Maybe they were confused by which form to file, and some people — who would be considering nonresident aliens under the tax code — filed the regular 1040,” she said.
The 1040 is a form used by individual U.S. taxpayers and was the basis for receiving stimulus checks.
“So, the IRS did not know that they were non-resident aliens because the only way that the IRS knows is by their reporting,” she added.
A significant proportion of the recipients are believed to be among the hundreds of thousands of college students who lived in the U.S. temporarily while working at seasonal low-wage jobs.
The CARES Act, which mandated federal payments to moderate and low-income Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, had specific rules on eligibility.
The bottom line for foreign workers, according to Holtzblatt, is that non-resident aliens could not receive it.
Though the IRS has not published guidance on how these foreign workers can return the money, the agency’s official website has a detailed page on how a taxpayer can return an “erroneous refund.”
According to Atlanta-based immigration lawyer Robert Johnson, the broader question is, “Were they lawfully entitled to the money notwithstanding their immigration status?”
If the answer is no, then Johnson said foreign workers should absolutely return the stimulus check.
When it comes to consequences of keeping the money, Johnson explained that though criminal laws and immigration laws are separate, the trouble comes if the U.S. government charges foreign workers with fraud.
“But how in the world is the government going to follow up with everybody? I'm not saying they couldn't, but there has to be some kind of charge filed against them so that they are [placed] in some sort of database,” he added.
A U.S government official from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said at this time “there are too many variables” to take into consideration before talking about immigration enforcement.
But consequences to keep stimulus money would depend on whether the mistake was made by the U.S. government.
“Also, the impact to [a foreign worker] admissibility [into the U.S.] would likely rest on whether a crime was committed, and if that person was charged and convicted,” the official said.
In addition to foreign workers, some federal aid was mistakenly sent to deceased Americans.