IRS seminars, IDs help illegal immigrants pay US taxes

Critics say one federal agency is accommodating lawbreakers that another agency is trying ferret out.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's been just an hour, but tax counselors at a recent IRS seminar at an immigrant community center have already seen 100 people and are facing an overflow crowd in the waiting room hoping for tax help.

These people aren't in a quandary over new tax laws or changes to the code. These are illegal immigrants who – up until today – have been using false social security numbers to work in the United States. Immigrants like them are flocking in record numbers to IRS offices and seminars such as this one to learn how to become legal US taxpayers.

The IRS has been quietly supporting this activity since 1996 when it created an individual taxpayer identification number designed for anyone who doesn't have a social security number.

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This program has gained momentum as immigrants become aware of this option – and more fearless about their position in the US workforce.

It's an example of the tension over the growing acceptance of illegal immigrants in this country. While US Border Patrol agents play cat-and-mouse with those trying to enter the US illegally, other federal agencies are creating ways to accomodate the 7 million to 8 million illegal immigrants who are already here.

SOME say the federal government's acceptance of this new tax ID number – as well its myriad other immigrant services, from education to health to housing – is a clear sign that the country has reached a certain comfortable level with illegal immigration from Latin America.

Others remain convinced that decisionmakers are going too far, undercutting law-and-order efforts by not enforcing immigration laws.

The IRS simply says it's smart business. Its job is to collect taxes from those who work, not determine who is eligible to work. To do that job, officials say, they needed to find a way to cut down on fraud.

"We had to do something," says Leandro Leon, education and communication director in the Houston IRS office. "These undocumented aliens were working here, using bogus Social Security numbers, and not reporting their income."

When the ID was first announced, Mr. Leon had a trickle of immigrants come to his office. But as word spread, and with assurances given that no immigrants' information will be shared with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Mr. Leon started having to set up seminars to handle as many as 500 immigrants a night.

Those same high numbers can be seen at seminars all across the US. The IRS has signed up 5.3 million since the taxpayer ID program began in 1996.

"The majority of people here, regardless of their immigration status, want to pay their taxes and abide by the laws of this nation," says Aisha Qaasim, the legislative staff attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington. "This tax ID allows them to do that."

Ms. Qaasim says the fact that the federal government is backing a program like this is a signal of official acknowledgement that millions of people live and work here illegally and will continue to do so.

NO ONE knows exactly how much illegal immigrants contribute in taxes, but experts estimate it is billions of dollars. Many at the Houston seminar say they're interested in getting some of their taxes back. For the most part, says Leon, people in this segment of society live below the poverty line and will end up getting all of their federal income tax back.

"Ten percent of $10,000 is significant," he says.

A tax refund is one of the main reasons Lorenzo Arteaga Victoria is at the tax seminar. This Mexican immigrant has been living and working illegally in Houston for about 10 years and says he doesn't know how much he has paid in taxes in that time. But when one of his co-workers at a local bodyshop told him about the tax ID number, Mr. Arteaga was immediately interested.

"Oh, yes, I'd like to get some of that money back," he says, clutching his new tax papers. "But the principle reason is that I want to be correct with the law."

Many are dubious of such moralism.

"It does show how even talk of amnesty begins to affect behavior," says Steven Camarota, of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. He's referring to the renewed amnesty talks between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox planned tomorrow in Monterrey, Mexico. He believes anticipation of amnesty is motivating illegal immigrants to use whatever means they can to establish residency.

Mr. Camarota's research has shown that illegal immigrants actually use more in social services than they make up for in taxes. That's because their education level and immigration status result in very low wages that aren't taxed heavily to begin with.

"The question," he says, "... is how do we reduce illegal immigration. Not how do we work with those who are here."

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