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Records Show More Illegal Immigrants Paying Taxes

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It appears that many illegal immigrants are trying to get right with the IRS. The number of filers using ID numbers instead of Social Security numbers jumped between 2004 and 2005. It's assumed that most filers who use "I-10" numbers are undocumented workers.


Among those filing tax returns this year, hundreds and thousands of illegal immigrants. The IRS requires undocumented workers to pay their taxes, even if they are on the U.S. illegally.

And as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, a growing number are doing so.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Hilario(ph) has been working illegally in this country for six years, hanging dry wall. But this is the first year he's filed a federal tax return. Wearing paint-spattered blue jeans and an Oakland Raiders ballcap, Hilario has come into the cramped second story office of a San Diego non-profit group for help in filling out his forms.

HILARIO (Illegal Immigrant): (Speaking Spanish)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking Spanish)

HILARIO: (Speaking Spanish)

HORSLEY: Hilario is hoping for a refund of some of the taxes that have been withheld from his paycheck over the years. Office manager Victoria Somaha(ph) says while some illegal immigrants are paid under the table in cash, those who get regular paychecks typically have taxes withheld, whether or not they file a tax return.

Ms. VICTORIA SOMAHA: So you know, they are paying taxes anyway, even if they are using other's Social Security or fake Social Security or whatever, they are paying taxes. So they only - they are doing when they come here is declare what they make.

HORSLEY: Most of Somaha's clients qualify for a refund, suggesting illegal immigrants who don't file a return may be leaving money on the table. Illegal immigrants do not qualify for the earned income tax credit like many other low-wage workers, but depending on how much they make, they can often recover some or all the federal taxes they've have paid.

Ms. SOMAHA: It's important because they are people who are working. This is not welfare. This is their money back.

HORSLEY: Somaha's organization has been running ads in Spanish-language media encouraging undocumented workers to file tax returns. In addition to the possible refund, she says, getting right with the IRS could be important to immigrants if Congress ever approves a path to citizenship.

Ms. SOMAHA: The most important reason, most of them, is because they want to be a good citizen, and they are concerned if they are going to apply for some kind of legalization in the future, they want to prove that they are paying their taxes on time like everybody.

HORSLEY: Another client, Elia(ph), waits in the hallway with her daughter. Elia has lived illegally in the U.S. for about 15 years, working most recently as a janitor. She's filing her first tax return in hopes it might help her qualify for amnesty.

Illegal immigrants can file a tax return even without a valid Social Security number by using an Individual Taxpayer ID Number, or ITIN. Most ITIN filers are thought to be illegal immigrants. More than one-and-a-half million ITINs were assigned last year, up about 80 percent from 2004.

Like bootleggers and corrupt politicians, illegal immigrants are required to pay taxes on their earnings no matter how they came by them. IRS spokesman Raphael Tulino says keeping track of workers' immigration status is not his agency's concern.

Mr. RAPHAEL TULINO (Internal Revenue Service): Basically, our job is to make sure everybody who is earning income within the borders of the United States pays the proper amount of taxes, even if they're not here working legally. And the ITIN number is something that these folks can use to take care of those tax obligations.

HORSLEY: Even if the IRS finds a bogus Social Security number on an ITIN filer's W2 form, Tulino says disclosure laws generally prevent his agency from sharing that information with immigration officials. Despite that assurance, it's a big step for illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows and file a tax return.

Oscar Amada(ph) has been preparing tax returns in San Diego for 18 years and says about 15 percent of his clients are in this country illegally.

Mr. OSCAR AMADA (Resident, San Diego): Many of them are nervous. They come here because they are referred from word of mouth. You know what I mean? The reason is for them to file their taxes, not to be deported or anything, you know, so that's why they come here.

HORSLEY: ITIN filers share one characteristic with other American taxpayers. A lot of them wait till the last minute to file their tax return.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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