U.S. Tax Program for Illegal Immigrants Under Fire

The hundreds of thousands of immigrants working in the United States illegally are still expected to pay income taxes. The program works by providing a special tax identification number instead of a Social Security number — and participants are guaranteed that the information can't be used to deport them.

But the program's critics say that it amounts to the Internal Revenue Service abetting illegal immigrants.

More than 1 million non-U.S. citizens will file their taxes this year. One of the reasons that those who are living and working illegally in the United States want to file taxes is that they see an opportunity to prove their economic contribution and document their residence.

Last year, 1.4 million people used the special numbers. The last time the government checked, more than half of the people using an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN, were illegal immigrants.

Federal tax law prohibits the IRS from sharing information with other government agencies, including immigration authorities. So it's the promise of confidentiality that allows immigrants to file their taxes without fear of being deported.

The U.S. Treasury created ITINs 11 years ago, to help people working here without Social Security numbers comply with U.S. tax laws. According to the law, if you earn money here you have to report it, even if you're here illegally.

Marti Dinerstein, president of Immigration Matters, a public policy firm in New York that advocates for stricter immigration laws, calls the situation "ridiculous."

"They know that people that are using ITINs are in the country illegally," Dinerstein says. "It's basically tantamount to institutionalizing illegal immigration in the country."

The IRS won't comment on this, although in congressional hearings, IRS officials have acknowledged concern that the ITINs may be used for non-tax purposes. In fact, some banks have accepted the numbers in lieu of a Social Security number.

Immigration officials say the IRS is just doing what it's supposed to do — collect taxes. They say the onus is on employers to verify the legal status of their employees.

Bianca Vazquez Toness of member station WBUR reports.

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