- Associated Press - Friday, April 1, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Civil rights groups were seeking a court order Friday to stop New Mexico taxation officials from withholding refunds of excess tax payments from immigrants who file under an alternative tax identification number provided by the federal government.

The request for an injunction was filed in anticipation of April tax deadlines, as a lawsuit over the immigrant tax returns makes its way through state district court in Santa Fe.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the statewide immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido have accused the state Taxation and Revenue Department of carrying out a policy of denying tax refunds to New Mexico residents who are foreign nationals and who file returns using their federally issued identification number, or ITIN, instead of a social security number.

The lawsuit was filed last year on behalf of a couple and two other workers. The federal government started issuing the identification numbers in 1996.

The New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department says it seeks additional information as a precaution against fraud from foreign nationals who are in the country illegally and use a federally issued identification number instead of a social security number.

In the past, the department has said it releases funds when filers provide documentation with basic information confirming their identity, such as paystubs or letters from their employers.

Civil rights groups say that many returns are never processed, and estimate that hundreds of thousands of dollars are being withheld.

Ben Cloutier, a spokesman for the taxation department, declined to say how many returns or how much money is being withheld from filers who use the alternative to a social security number. He said the department expects to prevail in court.

“They are asking us to turn a blind eye when illegal immigrants seek tax refunds using tax returns with fraudulent Social Security numbers,” Cloutier said. “That’s absurd, and we’re confident the court will agree.

David Urias, an attorney for the civil rights groups and immigrant plaintiffs, says taxpayers who use the alternative, federally-issued ID number are simply following the law and that excess tax payments belong to them and not the state of New Mexico. Plaintiffs say the state has reported sending more than 14,000 letters requiring more information to those tax filers since 2012.

The requested injunction would ensure that state does not arbitrarily withhold tax returns this year, Urias said.

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