By Jayanthi Ragubathi, 2017 Get It Back Campaign Intern
With the rapidly changing landscape of federal immigration policy, it can be a scary and uncertain time for many immigrants in America. In late January, President Trump signed two executive orders on immigration enforcement that signaled an era of expanded deportations, as well as a travel ban affecting visitors and residents from six restricted countries.
Advocates have expressed concerns that some undocumented immigrants are delaying filing their taxes for fear of changing immigration policies. Despite common misconceptions, immigrant communities contribute significantly to our country’s economy, especially through tax contributions. For example, in 2013, immigrants added $1.6 trillion to the total U.S. GDP. Undocumented immigrants also contribute: each year, undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11.74 billion in taxes to state and local governments.
Immigrants want to pay their fair share in taxes and contribute to society, even during difficult times. During this period of uncertainty, it’s important for tax sites to be informed and provide their clients with accurate and helpful information.
ITIN Application and Renewal: The Benefits and Risks
An Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) is issued by the IRS to immigrants and nonresident aliens who are required to have a U.S. taxpayer identification number but who do not have, and are not eligible for, a Social Security number (SSN). ITINs are for both documented and undocumented immigrants. The ITIN is entered on tax forms in place of the SSN. This year, mandatory ITIN renewals added another layer of complexity to the tax filing process.
Regardless of immigration status, all workers are required to pay federal taxes. Many immigrants benefit from applying for an ITIN and filing taxes, because it demonstrates compliance with federal laws and serves as proof of work history, residency, and “good moral character” when applying for citizenship. Other benefits to the ITIN include eligibility for tax credits like the Child Tax Credit.
VITA clients may have serious fears and concerns about ITIN application and renewal. Many undocumented immigrants worry that filing taxes increases their exposure to the government, which could lead to deportation. If your clients already have an ITIN, then the IRS has their information. They are not increasing their exposure by renewing their ITIN or filing taxes with an ITIN, unless they moved recently.
While current law provides strong confidentiality provisions for tax filing data held by the IRS, it is possible that Congress or the Trump administration will make changes to existing laws and regulations. However, the protections in place are statutory so they cannot be rescinded by an executive order. Knowing the risks involved, only proceed with ITIN application or tax filing if clients feel comfortable.
Education and Outreach
Information can help allay some of the fears that immigrants face. Clients need reliable and accurate information to know which concerns are real and immediate. Help clients understand all the options available to them, so they can make the best choice depending on their unique circumstances. Provide a safe and private space where experts can answer their questions.
The Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF) in Los Angeles, California holds a monthly immigration forum in partnership with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that has no legal power to enforce the law and does not share files within DHS or any other government department. Staff come together at MAOF to discuss immigration and citizenship with clients and answer questions. USCIS officers are available for a one-on-one consultation with clients. The officers cover a range of topics, including applying for U.S. citizenship, applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and family petitioning.
While clients wait for their consultation, MAOF staff discuss asset building services with them. They also emphasize the importance of filing a tax return, promote available tax credits, and explain how clients can apply for an ITIN through MAOF.
In Houston, Texas, BakerRipley also conducts education and outreach to the heavily immigrant community. The topics of most concern are ITIN applications and renewals, DACA, ACA penalty exemptions, refund delays, and refund anticipation loans. BakerRipley works with Univision and Telemundo, Spanish language television networks, to discuss these topics and promote VITA. Recognizing that many of their constituents are first generation college students, they also talk about the importance of filing taxes to apply for FAFSA. BakerRipley also shares ITIN information on FOX, ABC, and CBS.
Beyond taxes, support immigrants by sharing information on resources available in the community, like immigration services, employment guidance, and adult education (including ESL and GED classes). Help keep families safe by sharing resources for undocumented immigrants to understand their rights, how to interact with law enforcement, and how to prepare for an emergency.
“Know Your Rights: What to do if Immigration Agents are at Your Door” (ACLU)
Red Cards/ Constitutional Rights Cards (Immigration Legal Resource Center)
“Protect Your Family: Prepare an Emergency Plan” (Legal Aid Association of California)
“Navigating the ITIN Renewal Process: Implications for Immigrant and VITA Communities Webinar” (CFED)