On the Emotional Conflicts of Paying Taxes as an Immigrant

Considering our current state affairs, anyway.

Photo: John Morgan

My ex and I used to have a Tax Day tradition, one of those inside jokes couples share that make little sense to the outside world. Me, the non-American, would proclaim, “No taxation without representation!” before heading to the post office to send my tax documents. My partner, American, would retort, “That’s not how it works!” Then we would engage in silly banter about the unfairness of giving money to a country where I have no political vote. He would be quick to point out that it didn’t matter since I benefitted from said money anyway. Why, yes, our relationship was pretty much based on constant debate and a battle of wits. It did not last. Shocking. What did endure, though, was my strange and conflicting feelings of paying taxes as a non-naturalized immigrant.

I came to the United States back in 2006 on a student visa, became a resident about five years later and am currently in the process of getting citizenship. I have filed for federal and state taxes every single year that I’ve lived here, without delay. Like many of you (all of you?), I don’t have much of a choice. It is, of course required by law, and the qualification that seems to matter most to Homeland Security when jumping through the numerous immigration loops. Needless to say, I am not the only immigrant to be this responsible. My contributions are a drop in the huge financial bucket immigrants fill with their taxes.

Despite what you may have read on certain websites or heard from your virulent, drunk uncle, the IRS collects a small fortune from both documented and undocumented immigrants alike. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Social Security system will receive a net benefit of $407 billions over the next 50 years thanks to immigrants. A recent report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy also indicated that undocumented immigrants alone bring in about $11.74 billion in state and local taxes, leaving me to wonder how much we depend on taxes from documented immigrant since their share is probably larger. Let’s not forget that taxes are also collected through sales and property, which is sure to swell all these numbers and statistics.

Immigrants do benefit from all these contributions. My ex definitely had a point. Some of the things I enjoy and need the most are partially, if not fully, funded by taxes. The public transportation I use on a daily basis would not exist without the tax system. Thank you, taxpayers, for the slightly-smelly subways cars I visit on the regular (zero sarcasm). Lord knows I can’t count on my neighbors or myself to clean up the streets, so I tip my hat to the sanitation workers that deal with our mess. Services like the police, firefighters, public hospitals are vital and touchy-feely programs like free concerts in the park offer solace in other ways. I am all for it. Since I’m also not completely devoid of human empathy and foresight, I also have no problems funding public education or services for children despite not having any myself. Society can only become stronger if we take care of its future and all those babies will one day, hopefully, grow up to serve the community.

Having said that, immigrants don’t always have access to benefits that citizens enjoy — despite their hard-earned money going to the United States Treasury. For example, documented immigrants can’t apply for any of the following services until they have at least lived in the United States for five years:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Full-scope Medicaid
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Buy-In Medicare

What happens after they’ve fulfilled the 5-year waiting period? It depends. Some restrictions might still apply. As for undocumented immigrants, they do not have access to this at all. One could argue that perhaps it is not the country’s burden to bear. The problem is that there’s a tendency to talk about immigrants as if they were an expense on the system when, according to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, immigrants pay about $80,000 more in taxes than they receive over their lifetime. This includes local, state, and federal benefits.

Has this caused me any specific, particular harm? Not really. To be perfectly honest, I was blissfully unaware of all the benefits that were out of my reach until I began doing research for this piece. This has everything to do with privileges I enjoy beyond or despite my immigrant status. Basically, I’ve always had enough money to not rely on government services, whether that money came from fancy graduate school fellowships or the kind of white-collar jobs some immigrants can only dream of. Taxes were a nuisance, but something I delegated to Turbo Tax or CPAs. My protests were mostly in jest, not because I expected or demanded political representation, but because it’s a damn fun battle cry and a reminder of that strange immigrant limbo — you have one foot in one country but are aware that the door could always get slammed shut on your face. With all that money held hostage.

This year, though, I parted with my hard-earned money in anger. There have always been policies and decisions made by the US government that I haven’t agreed with or fully embraced. The Trump administration, however, has made immigrants the focal point of their actions and used them as their preferred scapegoat in everything ranging from crime (though immigrants tend to commit less of it), welfare (though, explained above, we have limited access to it) to issues of national identity (though immigrants are central to the United States mythos). The first 100 days of the Trump presidency can be described as a long list of attempts against people like me. Green Card holders were not protected, at first, from the travel ban. They are still trying their darn hardest to fund a very expensive wall on the Southern border. I don’t have the knowledge to fully understand how changes to Obamacare would affect immigrants, but seeing as we have limited access to Medicaid and Medicare I can’t imagine it will be benign.

It’s one thing to fund coffers that you will benefit from tangentially. It’s quite another to fund them when you know they’ll be used to negatively impact your community. In my case, it’s the general community of immigrants as a whole and that of minority women specifically. As the IRS deducted the amount I owed from my bank account, I felt a sense of guilt. Was I being complicit in actions I strongly opposed? On the other hand, what choice did I have? Failing to pay was not an option. It’s the fastest way of getting in trouble with the Department of Homeland Security, barring any violent criminal activity.

At the end of the day, taxes are really about the kind of society we want to live in and society is where we make our home. Not even the most curmudgeon or misanthrope among us can function away from some sort of community structure. Sorry, survivalists, it’s just not a feasible reality. There are a few things that I believe make a strong society and, therefore, a strong foundation for home: a social safety net, well-functioning services, a belief that the common good is actually a conduit to individual freedom and not its obstacle.

I would happily pay more than my fair share in taxes if I felt it was going to boost education, health care, welfare, and other programs that help people overcome whatever misfortune has put them at a disadvantage. Even as an immigrant, even if I had limited access to it, because I know it would be fueling the kind of place where I want to put down roots. Right now, though, it’s being used to chip away assistance, opportunities and, even worse, rights. I filled out the forms. I paid my taxes. Unlike other years, I did not make jokes about it. Instead, I tried to shake away the bitter taste it left in my mouth.

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