Some undocumented workers still pay U.S. taxes

Pedro Clemente, 18, and his wife Maria Rafael, 17, undocumented farm laborers from Mexico, work in an artichoke field in Thermal, Calif.

Tess Vigeland: Tax protests in this country go all the way back to the famous Boston Tea Party. You might say aversion to taxes is part of the American character. So it might seem curious that foreigners living in the U.S. would volunteer to cough up tax payments.

But Marketplace's Jeff Tyler tells us about a surprising group that does.


Jeff Tyler: Spanish is the dominant language in this Los Angeles office. Fabiana Barcenas files taxes on behalf of her immigrant clients.

Fabiana Barcenas: They are self-employment: Babysitters, housekeepers, gardens, construction.

Barcenas says about 80 percent of her customers are undocumented. As such, they can't work in this country legally. She says the system is contradictory.

Barcenas: The government, they don't give a Social Security number for work. But the IRS give a ITIN number for pay tax.

She mentioned an "ITIN number." That stands for Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Immigrants can get one from the IRS so they can pay taxes. The big question is, why the undocumented volunteer to pay taxes?

Mayolo speaking in Spanish

That's 43-year-old Mayolo. He says he pays taxes to stay on the government's good side. I agreed not to use his last name because Mayolo doesn't have the legal paperwork to be in this country. He's been here since 1993, working as a gardener. And for most of that time, he's been paying his taxes.

Mayolo: I believe that some day there will be an opportunity to legalize my papers. I don't want there to be any obstacle that blocks me.

He sees taxes as a stepping stone to citizenship.

Angelica Salas is executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

Angelica Salas: They want to make sure that they have a stellar record of payment of taxes so that when they go before an immigration judge, they can say, "I have good moral character." And part of that determination of good moral character is, "Did you pay taxes in this country?"

Many immigrants have had little experience paying taxes. Tax enforcement in Mexico and central American countries is lax at best. So Salas educates the undocumented about how taxes directly benefit them.

Salas: We talk about how important our schools are. How important our hospitals, our roads, all the things our taxes pay. Why it's important for folks to contribute.

Undocumented immigrants do contribute, she says, substantially.

Salas: They're paying up to $30 billion to the federal government. Likewise, they're paying a significant amount of dollars into the state and the municipalities in which they live.

But non-citizens don't qualify for tax credits. And if they over-pay, they often can't collect any returns.

Mayolo says our legal system won't allow him to recoup anything he pays in taxes. For 2010, he paid a little more than $3,500. Same for social security -- any money he puts in won't be coming back.

Angelica Salas rationalizes it this way.

Salas: The payment of taxes also connects you and roots you into this country.

Or it could be seen as a kind of investment for people like Mayolo -- taxes as a kind of downpayment on citizenship.

In Los Angeles, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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