What Trump Gets All Wrong About Immigration and Taxes

(Cross-posted from the Citizens for Tax Justice Blog)

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Photo: Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump’s recently released framework for immigration reform includes misleading statements about “illegal immigrants” claiming refundable tax credits. Trump claims that “illegal immigrants” received $4.2 billion in “free” tax credits in 2011 and proposes to pay for part of his immigration proposal by accepting the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA)’s “recommendation” to eliminate tax credit payments to these individuals. It’s hard to know where to start in deconstructing the inaccuracies in Trump’s statement.

First, the use of the word “free” is highly misleading, as undocumented immigrants do pay a significant amount in local, state, and federal taxes.  An analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) estimated that in 2012, undocumented immigrants paid $11.8 billion in state and local taxes (including about $7 billion in sales and excise taxes, $3.6 billion in property taxes, and $1.1 billion in income taxes). On top of this, the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Chief Actuary estimated that in 2010, unauthorized workers (who may be undocumented or in the country legally but without permission to work) paid $12 billion in Social Security payroll taxes net of benefits received. Since most unauthorized workers are not eligible for Social Security benefits, this group only received approximately $1 billion in benefits for the $13 billion paid in.

Second, the $4.2 billion figure that Trump references is from a 2011 TIGTA report that actually states that families with an unauthorized worker received $4.2 billion in 2009 (not 2011) through the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit (known as the Additional Child Tax Credit). While this may sound the same on the surface, there are a few things that should be noted. As the report explains, these credits were claimed by taxpayers using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), which the IRS issues to individuals not eligible for a Social Security Number. ITINs are issued without regard to immigration status to people not authorized to work in the United States, so this group includes not just undocumented immigrants but also individuals who have immigrated legally but aren’t legally able to work.

Labor-Day-Banner-Photo-4Taxpayers using an ITIN are prohibited from receiving the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) but are allowed to claim the Child Tax Credit (CTC). Worth up to $1,000 per qualifying child, the CTC is intended to offset the costs of raising children. Families who owe less in taxes than their eligible Child Tax Credit amount can receive the difference through the Additional Child Tax Credit, which is paid out with their tax refund. Since the CTC is intended primarily to benefit children, it makes sense that it is the children’s immigration status, not the parents’, that qualifies a family to receive the credit, and a qualifying child can be a citizen, a U.S. national, or a resident alien. And although some portion of the $4.2 billion in Additional Child Tax Credits could be going to families with undocumented parents, nearly 80 percent of the children of undocumented immigrants are U.S. citizens.

It is also worth noting that the refundable tax credits like the EITC and CTC have immense benefits for the children in the families that receive them. There is a growing body of research showing that these credits improve educational and health outcomes for children and result in them working hard and having higher earnings as adults.

Third, while Trump says that his plan would “accept the recommendation” of TIGTA to eliminate tax credit payments to illegal immigrants, the 2012 TIGTA report that he references makes no such recommendation. In actuality, the report recommends that the IRS implement procedures to reduce the number of fraudulent ITIN applications that it approves. TIGTA’s main concern here is that people are using fraudulent documents to obtain an ITIN and using it to file fraudulent tax returns (e.g. claiming tax refunds for non-existent persons), not the use of ITINs by undocumented immigrants.

GuardRailWorkers_12_2_2014Finally, if the concern is the $4.2 billion revenue loss, Trump should look to comprehensive immigration reform that allows a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which would actually increase revenues at the federal, state, and local levels. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the 2013 Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill would have decreased the deficit by $197 billion over ten years, as newly legal immigrants would pay $459 billion in additional taxes, while the increased government expenditures for benefits would only increase by $262 billion. Additionally, ITEP estimated that granting citizenship to all undocumented immigrants would raise more than $2.2 billion annually in state and local revenues. These revenue increases would occur because more immigrants would then be paying taxes on their income and because citizenship is likely to boost wages and therefore increase income, sales and property taxes. Trump might want to consider these benefits instead of spending all his time planning for that wall.

For more on Trump’s tax proposals, click here.

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