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.
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U.S. Tax Program for Illegal Immigrants Under Fire

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U.S. Tax Program for Illegal Immigrants Under Fire

U.S. Tax Program for Illegal Immigrants Under Fire

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More than a million non-U.S. citizens will file their income taxes this year. Some of them are living and working illegally in the U.S. Still, they see filing taxes as an opportunity to prove their economic contribution, and to document that they live here.

WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness has this story.

(Soundbite of sanding sound)

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: Johnny Guerrero(ph) is standing new pipes in a bathroom. He's been plumbing, painting and remodeling buildings in Boston for four years, sometimes employing as many as six men. But as far as the U.S. government is concerned, he's been working and living here illegally.

Mr. JOHNNY GUERRERO (Construction Company Owner): (Through translator) This country needs labor from people who really want to work. You don't see the people who complain about immigrants do this kind of work. They don't know how to build a wall. They have to pay someone to do it.

VAZQUEZ TONESS: He says getting legal status here is like building a house. You need a good foundation and shouldn't cut corners. Guerrero is building his personal foundation on tax records. He's filed his taxes since he came to the States nine years ago. He hopes his paper trail with the IRS will show immigration services he's a law-abiding citizen.

But he says U.S. laws don't make sense. One agency says you shouldn't be here, while another says as long as you are, we'll help you file your taxes.

Mr. GUERRERO: (Through translator) I see the policy as contradictory, but the way to deal with that is to follow the law as closely as possible.

(Soundbite of an automated answering machine)

Unidentified Woman: Welcome to the Internal Revenue Service TeleTax information line. If you are a foreign person who does not have and is not eligible to get an SSM, you must use an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN.

VAZQUEZ TONESS: The U.S. Treasury Department created ITINs 11 years ago to help people working here without social security numbers comply with U.S. tax laws. Those laws say if you earn money here you have to report it, even if you're here illegally.

Last year, Johnny Guerrero was among 1.4 million people who uses the special numbers. The last time the government checked, more than half of the people using ITINs 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.

Ms. MARTY DINERSTEIN (President, Immigration Matters): I think it's a ridiculous situation.

VAZQUEZ TONESS: Marty Dinerstein is president of Immigrations Matters, a public policy firm in New York that advocates for stricter immigration laws.

Ms. DINERSTEIN: They know that people that are using ITINs are in the country illegally. It's basically tantamount to institutionalizing illegal immigration in the country.

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

Johnny Guerrero, the Dominican construction company owner, is thankful to the IRS. Although he had to pay them $7,000 for last year's earnings, the opportunity to file helped him get legal. Last week, after years of illegal residence here, he received a work permit that's based, in part, on years of filing taxes.

Mr. GUERRERO: (Through translator) Here, they look at how you're working, how honest you are in your work and your taxes. If you aren't honest, they'll say you're not worth the trouble.

VAZQUEZ TONESS: Next tax season, Guerrero will have his own social security number and will start applying for permanent residence.

For NPR News, I'm Bianca Vazquez Toness.

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