EVERETT — Esmeralda Guzman sits at a desk beneath a row of windows adorned with faux stained glass.
It is here, in south Everett, where Guzman helps illegal immigrants walk a fine line, living beneath the gaze of immigration officials while proving they’re worthy of U.S. citizenship.
If the government ever offers amnesty, Guzman said, the immigrants will be expected to show that they’ve been living as Americans should: with steady jobs, with all earnings reported.
Guzman has worked for Multiservicios, a catch-all Spanish-language business with another site in Seattle, for four years. She notarizes documents, helps clients fill out immigration paperwork and, during the first quarter of every year, handles stacks of 1040 EZ forms.
The dream of amnesty brings thousands of illegal immigrants to Guzman’s desk each tax season, even as some are so nervous they might get deported that they duck at the sight of police officers and carefully avoid breaking the speed limit.
The federal government’s message is mixed, and its two sides seem to be as polarizing as opposing viewpoints on the immigration debate. Illegal immigrants are doggedly pursued at the Mexico-U.S. border by customs officials, but if they make it into the country and find a job, the government expects them to apply for an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN), which allows them to file taxes without a Social Security number.
“They make tougher laws, put military and a bigger fence along the border, and once they cross those barriers, if they find a job here — which is not that easy — then Immigration is after them,” said Raymundo Olivas, owner of Multiservicios. “But if they can overcome all of those obstacles, the federal government says, ‘Welcome. Here’s a number. And with this number, do your taxes.’ “
The Internal Revenue Service has issued more than 12 million ITINs to illegal immigrants since the program began in 1996, said Judy Monahan, an IRS spokeswoman. Now, illegal immigrants also use ITINs to open bank accounts, apply for home loans and other functions that encourage them to settle in this country long-term.
Last year, Multiservicios prepared taxes for about 4,000 clients. Of those, 60 percent were undocumented immigrants, Guzman said. Many of them came with fake or stolen Social Security numbers. In those cases, Guzman helped the immigrants file taxes along with an application for an ITIN.
Busy this year
This year, Multiservicios has had about 15 percent more clients for tax preparation, mostly because the immigrants hoped they’ll get checks through the federal government’s economic stimulus program.
The first draft of the economic stimulus legislation, considered early this year, would have allowed illegal immigrants to receive rebates if they filed taxes with an ITIN. That loophole was closed in a later draft, but the possibility of a rebate was enough to bring record numbers of illegal immigrants to tax preparation sites, Guzman said.
There are other benefits, too. Illegal immigrants who file taxes are eligible for tax refunds, just like anybody else, Guzman said.
“Most of my clients get a refund,” Guzman said. “In order to qualify for the child tax credit, you only have to live here for at least six months.”
For illegal immigrants, many of whom work low-paying jobs while their children learn English in public schools, the child tax credit means thousands of dollars in refunds each year.
Every illegal immigrant who uses an ITIN to file taxes protects one more American citizen from the possibility of a tax audit, said, said Larry Walkden, owner of Snohomish and Monroe Accounting and Tax Service.
If an illegal immigrant uses a Social Security number belonging to another person, the IRS is likely to investigate the U.S. citizen for failing to claim the immigrant’s wages, Walkden said.
Only a small percentage of Walkden’s business comes from illegal immigrants. He said he doesn’t ask his clients whether their Social Security numbers are valid. “I can go on the Social Security Web site and verify numbers and names, but I cannot use that information in discriminating against these people,” he said. “The government gives us no direction, so I treat everybody the way I want to be treated, with dignity and respect.”
Emily Gaggia, an education coordinator with Casa Latina, an immigrant advocacy organization in Seattle, said she encourages illegal immigrants to open bank accounts and try to live as normally as possible, a task she said is growing difficult as the immigration debate wears on.
Gaggia said she’s heard of some immigrants who have been deported when they tried to apply for ITINs at federal offices.
“I think a lot of people want to pay taxes, they want to do the right thing, but with the current immigration situation, with all the home raids and workplace raids and local citizens attempting to turn people in, a lot of people are really living in fear,” she said.
“You don’t want to be more illegal than you already are,” said Lydia Herrera, 40, who works in downtown Monroe.
Herrera said she came from Mexico City to the U.S. 18 years ago on a work visa. When her visa ran out, Herrera stayed. She was in the country illegally, but said she filed her taxes faithfully every year.
Herrera said she is now a legal resident, thanks in part to her own detailed records proving she filed taxes, even though it was with a fake Social Security number.
“We wanted to do things as right as we could,” she said.
Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.org.