Taxes and Illegal Immigrants

By Nancy Cook

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

Usually, people don't line up to file their taxes. But a New Bedford non-profit called the Community Economic Development Corporation has tried to change this by offering free tax preparation for low-income residents and Spanish-speaking immigrants. They've encouraged the city's burgeoning Central American community to file taxes this year. With the immigration reform looming, they hope that paying tax dollars could lead to citizenship.

Although Rocael Reyes has worked and lived in New Bedford for two years with his wife and baby, he's never before filed taxes. He's an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, who doesn't want to draw attention to himself. But this year Reyes feels differently.

Lupe Stratton: "Que es tu ocupacion?"

What is your occupation, the volunteer tax preparer asks him.

Rocael Reyes: "Aqui? Plaster."

Here? Plaster, he says. Reyes works for a local construction company that pays $12.50 an hour, no benefits. He snuck into the United States to escape poverty in Guatemala, where he worked a farmer and in a Nestle factory. Reyes says his reluctance to previously file taxes had more to do with a lack of information than unwillingness.

Rocael Reyes: "Es la primera vez porque la verdad a veces por falta de informacion. No puedemos hacerlo. Pues, esta opportunidad tuve la informacion como hacerlo y es por la primera vez."

Corinn Williams, the Executive Director of the New Bedford non-profit the Community Economic Development Corporation, paraphrases Reyes' words.

Corinn Williams (translating): "Well, it's the first time I'm filing my taxes because a lot of time we don't have the information on where to go and how to do it. This year I had the information, so that's why I'm filling out my taxes."

The Community Economic Development Corporation has tried to reach out to New Bedford's Spanish-speaking community through its free tax preparation. The non-profit meets with clients in the evenings and holds clinics on Saturday mornings, run by accounting students from UMass Dartmouth. Several volunteers speak Spanish. And in 2005, the CEDC helped sixty Spanish-speaking immigrants file taxes. In 2006, seventy-five of the city's roughly 5,000 Central American immigrants filed taxes with their help.

Corinn Williams: "We feel that we're sort-of preparing some groundwork for people who have been working productively and contributing to society."

Williams hopes that by filing taxes, illegal immigrants such as Reyes will enhance their chances to stay in this country and possibly become citizens.

Corinn Williams: "Yes, they have been here. They're paying their taxes. They deserve an opportunity to adjust their status, to normalize their status and become recognized legal workers in the United States."

Any type of attention illegal immigrants call to themselves can be risky. In December, immigration officials arrested thirteen undocumented workers at a New Bedford fish processing and planned to deport at least two back to El Salvador.

The fate of illegal immigrants also could drastically change depending on Congress. The House of Representatives recently passed a measure that would make illegal immigration a felony, while the Senate has proposed allowing illegal immigrants to apply for temporary work visas provided they've lived in the U.S. for more than two years.

Williams admits the risks of filing taxes and identifying oneself are real, but she also noted that the Internal Revenue Service, the federal agency responsible for tax collection, seems to operate separately from the rest of the government.

Corinn Williams: "Well, surprisingly enough, it appears that the IRS operates relatively autonomously from other parts of the government, from social security and immigration. This area of the IRS is concerned mostly with collecting revenue."

The CEDC helps any low-income person with tax preparation, computer training small business advice or the search for an affordable apartment. They're part of a network of sixty-five non-profits statewide.Over the course of several afternoons, an elderly Portuguese woman received a $700 tax refund at the CEDC and residents used the computers. Reyes visited the center with his brother. After filing his taxes on-line with the help of a volunteer, Reyes learned that he'd receive $1,000 as a tax refund, some of which he planned to send to Guatemala.

Broadcast May 4, 2006

Nancy Cook reports for the Cape & Islands NPR Stations.

myWGBH