One of the best pieces of advice that can be given to immigrants who are undocumented is to create a paper trail of how they are spending their time in the US and to keep their paperwork as organized as possible. This is especially true in case they ever qualify for some type of immigration relief such as deferred action, or better yet, are eligible to apply for legalization and need to show proof of residency in the US.
A paper trail can range from speeding tickets and electric bills, to school transcripts or posts on social media. But with tax time right around the corner, I want to take this opportunity to strongly encourage undocumented immigrant workers who haven’t been filing taxes to get an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) and add a filed tax return to their paper trail as well.
Beyond the fact that filing taxes is required by law for anyone earning above a certain amount of money, a filed tax can also serve as a pretty solid piece of evidence to establish proof of residency. And there’s the added bonus of how filing several years of taxes, and paying back taxes, if need be, might put someone in a more favorable light when applying for an immigration benefit. Good moral character is often part of approving a case and when an immigration officer is looking at documents submitted with an immigration application, it can’t hurt to have filed tax returns being part of the equation.
The message is pretty consistent whenever there is any talk amongst legislators that any possibility of amnesty or Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) must include all back taxes be paid by undocumented workers before any type of immigration benefit would be granted. Because undocumented workers are not eligible to obtain a Social Security Number (SSN), they must apply for an ITIN in order to file taxes. Since the IRS does not ask about immigration status and is barred from divulging taxpayer information to other government agencies (such as ICE), filing taxes is a sound way to establish a paper trail. Given that any talk about CIR in Congress is always linked to the payment of taxes, it is important for immigrants to take the steps needed in order to properly get their taxes filed now.
Because obtaining an ITIN number can be somewhat of a complicated process we advise our clients to seek help from a tax firm that has an Acceptance Agent (AA). An AA is someone who has already been vetted and authorized by the IRS to help applicants file and mail their ITIN application (W-7) and verify the identity documents needed to complete the application. Catholic Charities has identified an AA in Tompkins County, as well as other counties in the Southern Tier that charge only $35 to prepare the ITIN application.
I have come across immigrants who know about the ITIN but never knew how to obtain one. I have also had clients who have an ITIN but paid up to $1000 to obtain one. Most undocumented immigrant workers know it is their responsibility to pay taxes but since it is a complicated process it doesn’t always happen. My sentiment, as stated above though, is for immigrants to create a paper trail and to make sure that trail includes filed taxes. In addition, I would add once they obtain their ITINs, undocumented workers should then pay back taxes. This not only satisfies the law but it is certainly going to be a prerequisite for being eligible to apply for any future legalization program. This is a message worth repeating, especially since this has already been clearly stated by Congress.
With April 15 (aka Tax Day), quickly descending on us, I’d like to address the overlap that exists between immigration benefits and paying taxes. As a person who provides legal immigration services, I pretty much review personal income taxes of my clients on a daily basis since they accompany many of the applications I file with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). Most people think only the IRS cares about taxes, but when it comes to immigrants filing their taxes, USCIS can be equally interested.
First of all, I’d like to point out the importance for employed immigrants, regardless of immigration status, to file their taxes. Fortunately, many immigrants I assist have successfully filed their taxes in an accurate and timely fashion. However, there are others who have not filed taxes for various reasons and I have seen this have challenging consequences if they are applying for an immigration benefit. For example, I have clients whose citizenship applications were put on hold because they couldn’t affirmatively answer “NO” to the following question at their citizenship interview: “Since becoming a lawful permanent resident, have you ever failed to file a required Federal, State or local tax return?” They are then left scrambling to meet a deadline USCIS has imposed to prove they have filed taxes for the past 5 years or their citizenship application can be denied.
I have other immigrant clients whose petitions to bring family members to the U.S. have been delayed because they didn’t file taxes for the past 3 consecutive years but need to report on the required Affidavit of Support (AOS) their adjusted gross income as reported on the past 3 years of their filed income taxes. While this might seem like an innocuous example, it does lengthen the time it takes for an AOS to be filed and in turn extends the amount of time before a family can be reunified.
Once Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) is passed and USCIS will have to either approve or deny applications from immigrants seeking a legal status this nexus might again come into play. Having an established tax history will most likely be a favorable factor USCIS considers when assessing the good moral character of someone who is applying for some type of legalization benefit. In fact, ONA Legal Counsel, Gary Liao, counsels immigrants who are waiting for CIR to pass to obtain an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) and begin establishing a history of paying taxes sooner rather than later.
Since ISP has had first-hand experience with how critical it is for immigrants to file their taxes, we try to be proactive in educating our clients about its importance and refer clients to different tax preparers, programs, or services or when needed. For example, we refer clients to Alternatives Federal Credit Union’s (AFCU) Brian Zapf following their citizenship interviews if they need to prove they have filed taxes since he can assess whether they are even required to file taxes and if so, can actually prepare them. We also refer clients to the Community Tax Program Brian directs at AFCU since it is a great resource in Ithaca for those living in low income households to get free tax preparation. Anther resource we have identified locally is someone to help out with ITIN applications who charges reasonable rates. Since there is a tangible nexus between immigration benefits and filing taxes we are committed to making sure our clients know about this.