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Filing Taxes As an Immigrant: The Basics

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The deadline for filing federal taxes may have been extended until July, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare your taxes in advance. Legal residents and citizens use their social security number and choose the right type of form depending on income (W-2 for full-time employees, 1099 if you are self-employed, etc.). However, for immigrants who usually file their taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), the process may look a little different. 

Here is a helpful guide if you file your taxes with an ITIN:

What is an ITIN?

This number is used by foreigners to pay taxes on interest earned on a bank or investment account in the United States, or on income from work with US individuals or companies. It is also used by students, trainees and teachers who have earned salaries and scholarships, and spouses of visa holders authorized to work to pay self-employment income tax. You do not have to have a legal status to apply for an ITIN.

A tax return using ITIN does not guarantee legal or employment status, but it does allow you to open a bank account with interest, a driver’s license in some states, and also, with a view to legalizing your status, it helps an immigrant to demonstrate how long they have been in the country.

How to get or renew an ITIN?

The process for renewing an ITIN is the same as the process for applying for a new ITIN. There is no need to submit the application in person (you can fill up the form and mail it to the IRS and they will mail back your ITIN to your provided address) and it is free. All that is required is an application form (W-7) with basic information such as name, date of birth and address; a federal tax return; and proof of identity (you can use your passport, drivers license, visa, etc.)

The ITIN must be revalidated every 5 years, and expires after three if it is not used.

Will an immigrant’s legal status be disclosed to other government agencies?  

Despite worries, the ITIN is NOT an immigration-enforcement tool. Under Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code, the IRS is not authorized to release taxpayer information to other government agencies, except to the Treasury Department for investigations related to tax crimes, or responding to court orders for that reason. In fact, for the IRS to share information with any other agencies US laws would have to change, something that is not even up for debate in Congress.

Are there any benefits involved?

Aside from a potential reimbursement, there are some tax credits that you can benefit from regardless of your immigration status. For example, the Child Tax Credit (CTC) is worth up to $2,000, and the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) could give you up to $1,400 as a refundable qualifying child credit. Although these two require the child to have a social security number, you as a taxpayer can claim them as long as you have obtained your ITIN.

Two other credits that you can benefit from are the new Credit for Other Dependents (COD) of up to $500 and the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), which is up to $ 2,500 per eligible student.

Previously, a tax return allowed to obtain a child credit for the person who presented it, but under the Donald Trump government this is no longer possible if the child is undocumented, according to the The American Immigration Council organization.

Other things to keep in mind

On December 31st, 2019, two categories of ITINs expired:

  1. ITINs that have not been used on a federal income tax return at least once during tax years 2016, 2017, or 2018.
  2. ITINs with 83, 84, 85, 88, or 87 as the middle digits (i.e. 9NN-83-NNNN) that are not  already renewed.

Taxpayers who file tax returns with an expired ITIN will experience processing delays until they renew their ITIN. Refunds for some tax credits, like the Child Tax Credit and the American Opportunity Credit. 

Alexandra Tirado Oropeza is a Venezuelan journalist covering politics, immigration, entertainment and social justice. She moved to the U.S. in 2014 to pursue a Writing degree at The University of Tampa, and after graduating, she moved to Los Angeles where she works in broadcast and as a freelance writer. She’s passionate about equality, freedom of speech, art and dogs.