And in the past 20 years, the Internal Revenue Service has made it easier for workers to pay taxes if they don’t have a Social Security number (or a fake one, for that matter). Workers who are paid illegally in cash can still pay their taxes with an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN), filing a return just like any other taxpayer; having a history of paying taxes can be an important step in securing legal status. In 2010, about 3 million people paid more than $870 million in income taxes using an ITIN, and according to the IRS, ITIN filers pay $9 billion in payroll taxes annually. (The IRS says it does not share ITIN information with immigration authorities.)
Tanya Gonzalez, the executive director of the nonprofit Sacred Heart Center in Richmond, Virginia, organized the first federally-funded, bilingual tax-assistance program in the region, which sits in one of the two states that have seen increases in the number of undocumented immigrants since the recession. She kept hearing that undocumented immigrants in the Richmond area were getting ripped off by tax preparers, and a friend at the IRS told her about the federal grants offered to open free tax-assistance centers in low-income areas.
At Sacred Heart’s tax-assistance site, she has helped hundreds of immigrants apply for a taxpayer identification number, which allows them to file their taxes as contractors. The use of ITIN has grown popular among immigrant workers in Richmond, she says, as many await comprehensive immigration reform. Past legalization efforts have required undocumented immigrants to prove how long they’ve been living in the United States, and to pay the taxes they owe before receiving legal status. “They want to show that they’ve been paying taxes and have their papers in order as much as they can,” says Gonzalez, adding that some people are on payment plans, while others simply can’t afford to pay taxes at all.
One undocumented worker from Central Mexico who gets help with his taxes at Sacred Heart told me that he began paying taxes four years ago, after learning that it might one day help him stay in the United States. (He asked not to be named because of his legal status.) A 31-year-old landscape worker, he moved to Richmond in 1999 and now makes up to $1,700 a month maintaining golf courses seven days a week. Workers at Sacred Heart told him that if he filed taxes with an ITIN, it could help him gain legal status in the United States if Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform. As those efforts remain stalled in Washington, D.C., his wages are recorded into the Earnings Suspense File, and his taxes go into the Social Security trust funds. “So many people say we are here burdening the country, but we are paying their retirements,” he told me. For now, he doesn’t mind supporting the Social Security system, he says, but hopes one day he can reap the benefits, too.