Monday, March 31, 2014

Tax Happy

She is a soft-spoken woman with a beautiful, seven year-old daughter and a hardworking husband. Together Lucia and Esteban make enough to have paid off their home in the 10 years they've been together. We exchange a joke as the cautious tax preparer ponders how to enter their double last names. You can tell they are happy people.

"Es que aquí se pierde el apellido maternal y se mantiene solamente el paternal del marido."
(Here you drop the maternal last name and keep just the husband's paternal last name)

"¿Esto no es sexista?"
(Isn't that sexist?)

She laughs, and so Esteban and I realize we can too. You can tell they are happy people, except maybe for on this day: they've come to pay their taxes again.

I've done their return more than once before, and it never ends well. This year I will be their interpreter. What I remember is the pale look of resignation. They know the ending to the story and yet it must be read aloud to them anyway. Lucia and Esteban owe the IRS several thousands of dollars every year. Esteban is a contracted drywall installer, and as a self-employed laborer does not have any taxes withheld from his paychecks. Instead, he gets hit with a wrecking ball of ~$5,000 self-employment tax each year. This year, we talk about making estimated payments for 2014 to hopefully stay ahead of the game, but there's little money for estimated future payments when you're still paying off 2012's $9000 tax debt.

Here's the hook: Lucia and Esteban are undocumented workers (i.e. illegal immigrants). They have each lived 20+ years in this country, and although they dutifully file their tax returns yearly they have no hope of ever becoming citizens without a reform in the immigration process. They apply yearly for residence, and then, when turned down, they file their taxes again. They pay thousands year after year into programs such as Social Security and Medicaid that they will never benefit from.

Lucia's voice softens a bit as she explains: "Nos dijeron que había mucho movimiento positivo en la política de inmigración...que iba a haber reforma el año pasado." (They said there was a lot of positive stuff happening for immigration policy...that there would be a reform last year.)

There at the end of that phrase is the key: last year. Speaker Boehner, as of February 6th, 2014, has already shelved the idea of pursuing reform this year, too. When these model non-citizens are responsibly filing their taxes in a country that continues to refuse to recognize them (unless we need their $), what's the point? You may ask why they are filing at all. It's to be in good standing while hoping for a reform that would possibly provide them a pathway to citizenship, allowing them the benefits they are denied now based on a technicality. I say technicality (legal status) because they are as citizen-like as any of us. They own a home, their kids go to my neighborhood schools (for which they pay property tax), they live down the block from me, Lucia works at a restaurant I frequent, they bought a new car last year. You know: America, right?

The three of us are talking about all of this as the preparer tries to find the box for Mexican residency, and it seems appropriate to pause to say something I don't know if I've ever put into words: "En caso de que nadie les haya comunicado esto antes, les quiero decir honestamente que les quiero aquí en este país y en mi comunidad. Uds. son una parte importante de mi ciudad." (In case no one has ever said this to you before, I must tell you honestly that I want you here in this country and in my community. You are an important part of my city.)

Was I saying it for me? To say to the face of an actual person what I have long believed to the point of tears?

Lucia and Esteban take their stack of papers; we shake hands and exchange wishes to see each other again next year. Esteban smiles: "Este año dono todos mis ingresos a la iglesia a ver qué pasa." (This year I'll give all my income to the church and see what happens.)

You can tell they are happy people.