Illegal immigrants are pouring into tax-preparation offices and nonprofit agencies across Massachusetts and the nation to file state and federal income taxes, taking a step that some might deem unthinkable: giving their name, address, and financial information to the government.
In Massachusetts, taxpayers here illegally are lining up from Chelsea to the Berkshires, despite the fear of deportation that is permeating the state after a massive raid in New Bedford last year and smaller raids in Boston-area cities and towns. While typical American taxpayers are wary of the Internal Revenue Service, illegal immigrants see the IRS as a friendly agency that could help in their quest for legal residency.
"It's catching on that this is one of the things that you do" as a resident of the United States, said Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center in New Bedford, which is getting 10 calls a day, double the number it got a year ago, from immigrants who want help filing taxes. "If you're making a case that you want to stay here, without a doubt that's one of the things that the judge is going to look at."
The IRS created nine-digit individual taxpayer identification numbers, or ITINs, in 1996, to better track the tax returns of those who are ineligible for a Social Security number. Most taxpayers who use ITINs are believed to be illegal immigrants, though some legal residents - foreign investors, for example - also have them.
In Massachusetts 39,221 ITIN holders filed taxes for the 2006 tax year, up 20 percent from the previous year. Nationally, more than 2.1 million such taxpayers filed in the 2005 tax year, the most recent year available, up nearly 37 percent from the year before.
IRS officials warn taxpayers that filing taxes does not affect their immigration status. But a US Senate proposal in 2006 would have required illegal immigrants to pay back taxes as part of their application for legal residency, fueling the hopes of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country.
The rising number of taxpayers parallels the national debate about what to do about illegal immigration. Advocates point to paying taxes as proof that immigrants help the economy. From 1996 to 2003, according to an IRS study, ITIN holders were responsible for paying the government almost $50 billion, most of which was withheld from their paychecks.
But critics of illegal immigration say paying taxes should not help illegal workers become legal residents. The workers, they say, cost taxpayers millions of dollars in healthcare, education, and other services.
"We are not a nation of taxpayers. That is not the standard by which you attain membership in our society," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which urges the IRS to use its records to help deport people. "It doesn't buy you a ticket in."
The IRS does not generally share the taxpayers' information with federal immigration agents, said IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis, and neither does the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, said Commissioner Navjeet Bal. Anyone who earns income here, including illegal immigrants, must pay taxes, state and federal government officials say.
"The tax code, which is enacted by Congress and signed by the president, does not recognize immigration status," Mathis said. "Anyone who has US-sourced income of a certain amount must pay US taxes."
The New Bedford raid starkly illustrates the difference between the goals of the IRS and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Last March, federal immigration agents raided a leather-goods factory and arrested 361 illegal immigrants - many of whom also filed taxes. So a few weeks after federal immigration agents arrested the illegal immigrants, the IRS sent some of them refund checks.
Immigrants say the hope that they will one day become legal residents, and the fact that the IRS keeps their information private, helps them overcome their fear of filing taxes.
Eoin Reilly, a lawyer and board member of the Irish Immigration Center, said he has used immigrants' tax records, in part, to persuade immigration judges not to deport them. Paying taxes, he said, shows a judge that they have good moral character, and he believes that it has helped.
"It just kind of makes the scale tip a little bit," he said.
One rainy day last week, tax season was playing out in Chelsea. Signs in English and Spanish exhorting people to pay taxes were plastered in storefronts and scattered in restaurants.
Taxpayers trooped into the nonprofit Chelsea Restoration Corp., which helps citizens and noncitizens alike file taxes.
Armando, a 47-year-old illegal immigrant from South America who buses tables seven nights a week and earns $34,000 a year, arrived early Tuesday morning to file. He paid $20,000 to smuggle himself and his son across the US-Mexico border in 2005, and has filed taxes ever since.
Now he uses a fake Social Security number at work that he made up himself. But everything on his taxes is true.
"I wanted to stay in this country, so I made the decision, to win or lose," said Armando, who did not want to use his last name for fear of being deported, later adding that he will give his $300 refund this year to his son for his college studies.
A 57-year-old Argentine woman with a mop of copper-colored hair filed for the first time in eight years last spring, hoping that Congress would pass a bill to overhaul immigration laws. The measure failed, but she enjoyed the experience. She just received a letter of apology from the IRS saying she had paid $30 too much last year.
"Seriously?" the woman, arms thrown wide, asked Marilyn Garcia, the assistant director of Chelsea Restoration Corp., who translated the letter. "I can't believe the government owes me money!"
In general, though, illegal immigrants get fewer tax breaks. They cannot claim the Earned Income Tax Credit, which can be $4,700 for a family of four earning less than $12,000, and they cannot claim a new tax rebate just approved by President Bush. Missouri and Kansas also refuse to give state refunds to taxpayers without a Social Security number.
Pasquale Casella, a senior tax adviser at H & R Block based in Pittsfield, said immigrants are eager to follow the law. He visits English classes and ethnic festivals and has increased the number of ITIN filers he handles from a handful five years ago to more than 60 last year. He charges about $80 to prepare a simple return.
"These people have dreams," he said. "They want a good life for the family."
But critics say the illegal immigrants should not have been hired in the first place. Steve Kropper, cochairman of Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform, said businesses should use a federal database to screen for illegal workers.
"We don't think that those that are being paid on the books or are paying taxes are doing so for charitable reasons," said Kropper. "It's a condition of employment."
The Argentine woman, who works odd jobs caring for sick people, acknowledged she was breaking the law by working in the United States. But she said she was glad to pay her share. The government helped her recently, she said, by paying for an operation when she fell ill.
"I hope that if someday the government offered me legal documents, they will see that I have been complying with the taxes," she said. "With taxes, at least."