Some Lawmakers May Try to Use Tax System to Withhold Rights from Immigrants

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The immigration reform bill that the Senate is expected to return to after the Memorial Day recess may become a vehicle for tax provisions that would deny immigrants who are working and paying taxes the rights that other workers have. The bill, which aims to create a process by which undocumented immigrants can obtain legal status and eventually become citizens, already includes some provisions geared to placate conservative members of the Senate. Many advocates for immigrants' rights are nonetheless hoping that negotiations lead to a bill that improves life for foreign-born workers and their families.

Legislation Would Take Social Security from Legalized Immigrants Who Paid into It

The legislation being negotiated is Senate Amendment 1150 (which is expected to be adopted as a substitute for the placeholder bill S. 1348). It includes language that would reduce or deny Social Security benefits to immigrants who paid Social Security taxes before becoming documented. In a departure from current law, an immigrant who is working and paying Social Security taxes and then becomes documented (and even becomes a citizen) would not get credit for Social Security taxes paid while she was undocumented. This would mean the person could, upon reaching retirement age or becoming disabled, either have drastically reduced benefits or no benefits at all... even if she has become a citizen. Since older immigrants are likely to depend on Social Security benefits during old age, this could increase poverty and increase the sense that they are actually second class citizens.

Also, a bedrock principle of Social Security - and a reason people continue to support the program - is that paying into the system earns the guarantee of a benefit. Taking benefits away from people who actually paid for them would obviously call into question how serious that guarantee really is. A report from the National Immigration Law Center explains the various negative effects that could result from this provision.

Amendments to Take Tax Credits from Immigrant Taxpayers

There is no rational reason to fear that immigrants are going to somehow take federal benefits that they did not pay for. Undocumented immigrants are barred from using federal benefits programs. Also, the Senate adopted an amendment last week that requires that undocumented immigrants who owe back taxes must pay them or enter into an agreement to pay them before they can change their status. But this has not deterred some Senators from trying to deny immigrant workers and their families the rights that workers typically have in America. Next week, Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is expected to introduce amendments related to the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of which would prevent immigrants who are working and paying taxes (paying federal payroll taxes and possibly also federal income taxes) from receiving the EITC until they have had a green card for five years.

Report Shows the Immigration Reform Would Actually Increase Revenues

There is also no rational reason to fear that immigrants will drain the federal government's resources. A preliminary report issued by the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation explains that the net fiscal impact of the immigration reform bill would be positive. The figures released show that the legislation, if enacted, would cause the deficit to actually decrease by $2 billion over five years and by $37 over 10 years, compared to current law.

Uncertain Future in the House

Even if the Senate does pass an immigration bill, it's not clear how it would fare in the House of Representatives, where several Democrats have voiced concerns that it moves away from unifying families and towards having immigrants come to America to work only on a temporary basis. One proposal introduced by Republican Representative Dan Lungren (CA) would designate some immigrants as seasonal workers who must pay payroll taxes into a trust fund and then return to their country of origin to recoup that money at a U.S. consulate. Advocates for immigrants' rights and tax experts would probably agree that the tax system was not designed to be used as a tool to extract labor from immigrants while preventing them from settling in America.

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