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< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

Immigration Reform Is No Laughing Matter

by Ethan J. Clark

The comedian, Steven Wright, once entertained his audiences by sharing his experiences with his pet dog. He'd had the dog since it was a puppy but its behavior had changed as it grew older. The anticipation built as he explained his decision to name his companion, "Stay." Then, in his usual deadpan style, he delivered the coup de grace by mimicking the poor dog's confusion after hearing his master's command, "C'mere, Stay! C'mere, Stay!" It was a very deft piece of comedy, delivered by a master craftsman. I find myself dwelling on that memory often as I listen to the arguments surrounding immigration reform.

The mere mention of the word, "immigration," evokes passion from all sides. Throw in the clever use of "reform" and, Katie, bar the door! The problem is we all have different views on what shape "reform" should take. Some would have us forcibly remove every person that has entered our country in ways not prescribed by law. "The law must be respected," they shout. Others would have us legalize every single person, an estimated 12 to 20 million people, who broke the law to get here. "They're just seeking a better life," they lament. I believe in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law. However, I cannot honestly claim to have obeyed every speed limit, honored every stop sign, or sustained every law. I'm not justifying or condoning willful disobedience of the law. I just think the situation requires some perspective. Conversely, the rules exist for a reason. 9/11 and, most recently, public health concerns from tuberculosis exposure prove this. Violations must carry consequences. Otherwise, we mock those who have stood in line patiently for their piece of the American dream. What can we do while we figure out how to bridge this philosophical impasse?

For starters, we should recognize that our system speaks in ambiguous terms. For example, The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 274A, clearly explains that to hire an unlawful alien, a citizen of a foreign country here without authorization, is an offense that carries civil and criminal penalties. However, the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) requires individuals that have earned income in the United States to pay taxes on that income, regardless of immigration status. If employed, even illegally, the unlawful alien must make the required contributions to Social Security and Medicare, although they can never receive those benefits. OK, that makes sense, kind of. But wait, there's more. While the term "resident alien" is defined by the INA as someone having authorization to be in the U.S., the IRC has its own, and different, definition. The IRC definition holds, essentially, that you are a "resident alien" for tax purposes if you have authorization to be in the U.S., like the INA definition requires, OR you've been here at least 31 days in the previous year or 183 days in the last three years. That's what they call the "Substantive Presence Test." It's completely unique to the tax code. Meeting the IRC definition of "resident alien," but failing to meet the INA definition, entitles the taxpayer to most of the same tax benefits as a U.S. citizen, including the return of any overpayment, meaning, a refund! But wait, there's more! If you don't have a Social Security Number, you can't file a tax return, right? Wrong. The IRS, under a program started in 1996, will issue an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, to taxpayers that cannot qualify for a Social Security Number. To be fair, the applicant must have a demonstrable tax need to receive an ITIN, such as income to report, but how can an unlawful alien have a valid tax need if it's illegal to hire them in the first place? The question is not meant as an indictment of the alien but of the system. Consider this; since 1996, the IRS has processed over 12 million applications for the ITIN, almost as many applications as there are estimated unlawful aliens in the U.S., and collected over $50 billion in tax revenue from those applicants. For Tax Year 2006 alone, contributions to Social Security by ITIN filers are estimated to be in excess of $7 billion. Moreover, the contributions from these sources are factored into the projections for determining the very solvency of the Social Security program. Truth be told, that revenue isn't reluctantly accepted, it's counted on. So much for the assertion that unlawful aliens don't pay anything into the system. So, again, what are we to do? It seems, to me, that we need to make a choice between a law that says unlawful aliens cannot work and the taxes and other contributions they are willing to pay to be here.

President Ronald Reagan, a personal hero of mine, in paraphrasing the words of the Apostle Matthew, referred to America as, "a shining city on a hill." His words were meant to illustrate one of our deepest held beliefs that our country exists by divine providence to be an example to the world. We stand as a beacon to those in search of freedom and as proof that man can only be limited by his capacity to dream and his willingness to work.

Advocates on both sides of the immigration argument will continue, it seems, to extol the virtues of their positions while simultaneously deriding the opposition for extolling theirs. When reason fails, demagoguery usually works. However, without fundamental change to our immigration system, change that brings continuity and consistency, their efforts only serve as counterweights in sustaining the status quo. If you listen closely, you can almost hear, "C'mere, Stay! C'mere, Stay!"

Sadly, that joke just isn't as funny as it once was...

About The Author

Ethan J. Clark is Vice-President of the Business Development division in the Lopez Financial Group, LLC.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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