CENTREVILLE, Va. — As lawmakers scramble to finalize the details of a comprehensive immigration reform bill for debate in Congress later this year, some of its projected beneficiaries — the 11 million undocumented immigrants — are already preparing for a path to citizenship by learning English and filing taxes.
Although the opportunity for citizenship has always been the foremost issue of the reform, the details are still hazy. Qualifications for acquiring citizenship will likely include learning English, registering with the Homeland Security Department and filing income taxes.
Despite the uncertainty of the details, some foreign day laborers are registering for tax identification numbers, a way to be recognized by the government for those without legal status.
Centreville Lays the Groundwork
Day laborers at the Centreville Labor Resources Center about 30 miles outside of Washington in suburban Virginia started the registration process for filing taxes after learning about the American income tax system at an instructional session last month.
At the training session, Nelly Marquez-Pike, a volunteer and tax consultant at the Virginia Tax Center, told the workers, many of whom are undocumented, to file taxes because it’s the first step in integrating into working society. Speaking primarily in Spanish, she said paying taxes will not only help them qualify for benefits such as citizenship being proposed in the Senate immigration reform bill but also give them access to other important financial benefits — a bank account, building credit, collecting Social Security and even home ownership.
“In this community, we all know someone [who is undocumented]. They work here, they live here, and they pay taxes,” Pike said in an interview. “Now they have the opportunity to become part of the fabric we’re all a part of.”
Roberto Fernandez, director of the Centreville center, said he wants workers to be ready with the right documents if Congress passes an immigration reform bill this year.
“We’re encouraging the tax I.D. number and we have volunteers who come in every day to do ESL [English as a Second Language] classes for an hour or two,” said Fernandez, who immigrated to the U.S. with his parents when he was 9.
The Centreville Labor Resources Center was founded in 2011 as a safe space for employers to solicit daily unskilled labor and for workers to know they are being hired by people who will not take advantage of them. The center is open to anyone looking for temporary labor-intensive jobs and has 391 registered workers, half of whom come to the center on a regular basis.
Although their legal statuses are never openly acknowledged by the center, many of the workers are undocumented. But according to law, informal temporary labor does not require any sort of documentation.
Guatemalan native José Luis has been coming to the center since 2011. He recalled that before he came to the center, one employer took advantage of his undocumented status by refusing to pay him after he’d worked 20 days.
“But now, at the center, everything is organized. If [a contractor] doesn’t pay, someone will call him,” Luis said. “Before, I [stood] in the street, where people pushed [each other] and there were accidents. Here, there are no accidents.”
Luis, like many of the other workers at the center, is interested in becoming a permanent resident. He and his wife have lived in the U.S. for almost 10 years, but his child is in Guatemala.
“I pray for [green card] because I want to support more of my family,” he said. “It’s not easy here. But I learn something new every day.”
In addition to teaching tax rules and English, the center facilitates peer workshops in which the workers can teach each other different skills like dry walling and working with electricity.
Fernandez said although the Centreville community is mostly conservative, there has been vocal support for the center, including the Sully district supervisor and several local churches.
Alice Foltz, a retired elementary school teacher and a long-time member of the Centreville Immigration Forum, has developed personal connections with many of the laborers there.
“A lot of them have kids back home — a wife, a family. It’s hard for us to imagine what that’s like here in America,” Foltz said. “What I’ve said to them is that, if the reform does come, it’s good to be ready That’s the piece we’re doing now — helping people to be ready.”
Day Laborers in Virginia
The Centreville Labor Resources Center was created after the 2007 demise of the Herndon Official Worker Center. Opened in 2005, the Herndon center was founded in conjunction with Reston Interfaith, a nonprofit organization in North Fairfax County, but did not generate strong support like that in Centreville.
Unlike the Centreville center, the Herndon facility was local government-funded and area residents were bothered that undocumented workers could receive the benefits, according to Bill Threlkeld, former director of the Herndon center.
He claims that he was not involved in learning about the status of the workers at the center. Individual people soliciting workers would ask to see work permits depending on the services requested. A long-term landscaper may need to present documentation, while someone hired to cut the grass once may not, Threlkeld said.
The Road to Tax Identification
At the heart of the Centreville Labor Resources Center, there is a tight-knit community of Guatemalan immigrants who participate in the weekly lessons and group outings.
Before they can register for a tax I.D. number with the IRS, the workers must have one of several stand-alone documents. Because many of them are undocumented, they don’t have driver’s licenses or health insurance cards so they must validate their passports.
Fernandez and the Centreville center’s organizer, Molly Maddra, have taken some of the day laborers to the Guatemalan consulate in Maryland for passport renewals.
“In a regular month, we service between 1,500 to 2,000 [Guatemalan residents in the U.S.],” said Lionel Maza, deputy representative at the Guatemalan consulate in Silver Spring.
Valid passports are needed to acquire Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, which are an alternative form of documentation to Social Security Numbers, for which undocumented foreign workers do not qualify.
Maza opens the doors to the consulate on the first Saturday of every month to accommodate individuals who may not be able to make it during regular business hours. According to Maza, the consulate also travels to different states including Kentucky, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia. During these “mobile consulates” Maza and his staff reach out to Guatemalans working in different sectors of the economy.
As Congress moves forward on finalizing House and Senate versions of immigration reform for consideration, the key issue is how to create there is a path to citizenship.
The bill would be the first piece of comprehensive immigration legislation since the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed in 1986 under President Ronald Reagan.
“My family immigrated from El Salvador. Because of the 1986 reform, my parents were able to establish themselves and us as a family,” Fernandez said. “So it’s very personal for me. Path to citizenship seems like a long shot, but it would benefit a lot of people.”