Wednesday, December 17, 2014
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Tax time is for everyone, including illegal immigrants
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Aniceto Flores, 40, cleans the marble counter at a house in Woodbury. Last fall, Flores started cleaning houses during the day. Flores is an illegal immigrant, and is planning to file his taxes this year for the first time. (MPR Photo/Bianca Vazquez Toness)
The April 15 tax deadline to file taxes causes most Americans stress and anguish. But for the millions of people living and working illegally in the United States, filing taxes can be an opportunity to prove their economic contribution and document their residence here. The IRS allows them to file using a special number. But some immigration critics don't like the idea of a federal agency accommodating illegal immigrants.

St. Paul, Minn. — Aniceto Flores cleans for a living.

That means spending a lot of time in his truck, navigating the suburbs around the Twin Cities. He hauls buckets, rags, and other supplies in the back. He consults a thick red book of maps, but he still gets lost. He gets frustrated by the cul-de-sacs and meandering roads of the newer subdivisions.

It's all part of the adventure of his new business.

Last fall he started cleaning houses during the day. It's going so well that he bought a new SUV. He still works a second job for a janitorial service, cleaning offices at night. He says that all of the other employees there are just like him. They're here illegally.

"President Bush and other politicians say that the U.S. should give work to illegals that Americans or gringos don't want to do," he says. "This is a job that no one wants to do."

Aniceto dreams of someday cleaning hundreds of houses, hiring his own staff, buying a big house, and making lots of money.

He's lived in the states for five years, but he's never filed taxes. He says he needs to start filing to get right with the Internal Revenue Service and immigration authorities if he wants to build a future here.

But the laws here are harder to navigate than these suburban streets.

The IRS has created an absurd situation, where it is working against the goals of the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
- Marti Dinerstein, Center for Immigration Studies

"U.S. law says that illegals have no business being here," he says. "The tax laws say it doesn't matter that you're illegal -- you have to pay. It's not fair is it. If I'm going to be here I'm going to pay and follow the rules, so I say they should give me a chance to work."

Aniceto used a fake Social Security number when he got his job with the janitorial service. Illegal immigrants cannot legally get a Social Security number. They either buy one on the black market, use someone else's, or -- in Aniceto's case -- make one up. Some employers don't verify that the Social Security number is real or belongs to their employee.

Now that Aniceto is self-employed and wants to report his cash income, he needs a way to file his taxes. The janitorial service Aniceto works for withholds taxes from his paycheck. But Aniceto does not declare income from his day job.

Nine years ago, the IRS created the Individual Tax Identification Number. The idea then was to collect taxes from rich foreigners with investments in the United States. The IRS soon realized it could also use the number to tap into the untaxed cash economy where many illegal immigrants work.

Aniceto fears being deported. You might think that he would fear filing his taxes and calling attention to himself. But he says he knows that revenue and immigration authorities in the United States don't talk to each other. He knows that as long as he keeps working and stays out of trouble, he'll be safe. It's the IRS's tradition of privacy that allows people like Aniceto to join in the American ritual of filing taxes and -- at the same time -- stay under the radar of immigration authorities.

The state of Minnesota accepts the special filing numbers to process state income taxes, and expects illegal immigrants like Aniceto to use it. State law requires illegal immigrants to file just like everyone else if they have enough income.

The state typically doesn't count how many people file their taxes using these numbers. One study released last year showed that nearly 8,000 Minnesota residents used the numbers.

Carole Wald, the assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Revenue Department, says it's not the agency's job to worry about the legal status of people like Aniceto.

"It's not in our bailiwick to determine whether they're residents or not, or whether they've gone through all of the work that it takes to be a citizen," Wald says. "We know none of that. As far as we're concerned they worked here. They have something that proves they worked here. Then they had taxable income."

In fact, revenue authorities have kept illegal immigrants' taxes so private that immigration officials don't even know they can file them.

When contacted by Minnesota Public Radio, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied that illegal immigrants could even get a tax-filing number.

But, after checking the IRS Web site, he conceded that the IRS must have changed its policy. He claims it was a recent change. However, illegal immigrants have been filing their taxes with the special filing number for nearly a decade.

The immigration official said that he didn't see a contradiction between his agency's mission and IRS practice. He said each agency is just doing its job. Still, policy analyst Marti Dinerstein says that immigration and revenue authorities should get on the same page when it comes to illegal immigrants.

Dinerstein is a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank that favors stricter limits on immigration.

She says that people like Aniceto are probably harmless and just want to work. But the fact that the IRS has made it easy for him to file his taxes "institutionalizes" illegal immigration.

"The IRS has created an absurd situation, where it is working against the goals of the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security," Dinerstein says. "It likes the tax revenue. But by refusing to cooperate with the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security by sharing knowledge, it is really aiding and abetting illegal immigration in the United States."

Last month, Aniceto Flores joined about a dozen other people looking for answers at a tax workshop.

Two women who led the workshop spoke about their experiences filing taxes as illegal immigrants. They told the audience they should file their taxes. They claimed that as long as they're honest, filing will help them more than it will hurt them.

"It's important to pay taxes because we need to think of the future," Adriana Ramirez said. "The only way to show that we've been here, that we're doing things right, is to pay taxes. It's the only way."

Aniceto still has doubts. He says he wants to do the right thing, but the rules are fuzzy and that worries him. Like most Americans, he's afraid of the IRS and getting audited. But for him, if he files his taxes and makes a mistake, he could draw the attention of authorities and could get thrown out of the country.

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