If you earn money in the United States, you usually must pay taxes on that income. This is true regardless of the type of income, whether it comes from employment, self-employment, independent contracting or elsewhere. This is also true whether you are legally present in the U.S. or not. If you do not have employment authorization, you are not supposed to work, but you are breaking the law if you do work and don’t pay taxes. So the first and most important reason you should pay your taxes is because the law says you should.
Many immigrants do not have a social security number they can use to file tax returns. If you do not have a social security number, you should apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) with the IRS. You can use an ITIN to file federal, state and local tax returns, and they are usually easy to obtain. Because the government wants you to pay taxes, it will not punish you for applying for an ITIN if you are not legally present in the United States. In other words, the IRS will not turn you in to immigration authorities just because you apply for an ITIN. If you are work without a proper social security number or ITIN, and taxes are withheld from your paycheck, you will not be able to get the benefit of those taxes paid in the future. For example, if you do file a tax return, you will not be able to claim taxes paid under an incorrect number. Or, if you ultimately become a permanent resident or citizen, you will not get the benefit of those previously paid taxes for Social Security purposes.
Having an ITIN can also help you with other things. Some banks will accept an ITIN to open accounts or serve as an alternate form of identification. Having an ITIN will not grant you any immigration benefits, but it can help you avoid immigration problems. Paying taxes helps establish that you are a person of “good moral character,” which is something the government considers when you apply for immigration benefits. Also, if the government is trying to deport you, and you have applied for relief to stop the deportation, you usually are required to prove your good moral character, which includes payment of taxes. Immigration judges do not look favorably on persons who have lived and worked in the United States, but who have not paid taxes. So remember to pay your taxes. Not only is it the law, but it can both help you and keep you out of trouble with specific immigration concerns in the future.
Originally Published: La Costa Latina, October, 2011
The information provided in this column is for general information purposes only, and is not intended to constitute legal advice If you have specific legal questions, you are encouraged to contact an attorney.