- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2007

RICHMOND, Calif. (AP) — Carlos Diaz broke the law when he crossed the border and took a job as an office janitor. But he’s not about to break another by failing to pay his income tax.

“I’ve been talking to other people who’ve done it, and I want to follow the law,” said Mr. Diaz, an undocumented alien from Guatemala who squirmed in his seat at a neighborhood tax preparer’s office.

Tuesday is Tax Day, when millions of illegal aliens find themselves collaborating with one federal agency — the Internal Revenue Service — while trying to avoid another, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

They hope a track record of on-time payments will aid their citizenship applications, but critics who favor tougher enforcement of federal immigration rules say it’s absurd for the government to work with people it should be tracking down and deporting. It legitimizes the presence of immigrants who are here illegally, critics say, and sends a mixed message about the country’s interest in enforcing its own rules.

“The word schizophrenic comes to mind,” said Marti Dinerstein, president of Immigration Matters, a research firm that advocates tighter immigration enforcement. “There is something fundamentally wrong about this.”

The IRS created a nine-digit Individual Tax Identification Number in 1996 for foreigners who don’t have Social Security numbers but need to file taxes in the U.S. But it is increasingly used by undocumented workers to file taxes, apply for credit, get bank accounts or even buy a home.

The IRS issued 1.5 million ITINs last year — a 30 percent increase from the previous year. All told, the tax liability of ITIN filers between 1996 and 2003 was $50 billion. The agency has no way to track how many were immigrants, but it’s widely thought most people using ITINs are in the United States illegally.

One number hints at the number of illegal aliens having income taxes deducted from their paychecks.

In 2004, the IRS got 7.9 million W-2s with names that didn’t match a Social Security Number. More than half were from California, Texas, Florida and Illinois, states with large immigrant populations, leading analysts to think they likely represent the wages of illegal aliens. Even immigrants who use ITINs to file taxes are forced to make up a Social Security Number when they get a job.

Critics such as Miss Dinerstein think the process makes room for law violators, and in some cases, might endanger the country by allowing them to operate more freely.

“That’s why people who are living here illegally rushed to get ITINs like they’re chocolate candy,” said Miss Dinerstein. “It’s a national security issue.”

IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis said the ID numbers are issued strictly to track a tax return’s progress through the system, noting the tax code says nothing about whether foreigners filing taxes are legal.

“It serves no other purpose,” she said, “and was never intended to serve any other purposes.”

Nor does the IRS share immigrants’ personal information with ICE or any other agency, Miss Mathis said.

To avoid any resemblance with Social Security cards, the IRS stopped issuing cards and instead sends a letter bearing the tax ID number. Still, these numbers do end up being put to other uses by a population eager for any form of official ID, and by companies interested in doing business with them.

Many banks now allow illegal aliens to open an account with their ITIN, and Bank of America has a pilot program in Los Angeles that allows customers to use the numbers to sign up for a credit card. Others have created mortgage products for ITIN-bearing immigrants, including Citibank, which offers one in partnership with ACORN Housing Corp.

“They want to go forward, work, be a normal taxpayer,” said Erica Gonzalez, a staffer in ACORN’s Fresno office, where demand for the tax ID has shot up in recent years. “If they want to establish themselves here, this lets them do that.”

Five states — West Virginia, Kentucky, New Mexico, Utah and Illinois — also allow ITINs to be used as identification for a driver’s license.

This is what rankles the system’s critics.

“The IRS never anticipated this phenomenon,” said Miss Dinerstein. “They thought it was going to be some boring tax compliance number.”

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