clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

I’m an undocumented immigrant. I pay my taxes every year.

The money I send to the government might be used to deport people like me.

Federal tax forms in the Chicago Internal Revenue Service office in 2005.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

As a young boy, I remember accompanying my parents to visit their accountant and seeing them turn over large folders, neatly organized, with all of their tax forms and corresponding documents. My mother would tell me her priority was to show the government our family was contributing, so that when it came time to become legal permanent residents, and later US citizens, there would be no questions about our contributions to the country.

I have lived in the United States for the past 17 years, half of that time as an undocumented immigrant. Paying taxes has, at times, felt like a contradictory experience for me.

My parents, who became undocumented immigrants after losing their immigration status in 2007, continue to pay their taxes to this day. Just like me, they have always abided by the simple belief that regardless of their immigration status, they have to do right by the country that has given their family a better life and opportunities.

No matter what Donald Trump and his anti-“illegal” immigrant supporters may think, there is plenty of evidence pointing to the fact that undocumented immigrants like my parents are just as American as anybody else — especially when it comes to fulfilling our responsibility of diligently paying our taxes on a regular basis.

“If we are to be deported, at least I hope the government takes into consideration the fact that we have always paid our taxes.”

My family arrived to the United States in the year 2000 in hopes of opening their own business, fleeing political unrest and economic instability in the early years of Hugo Chávez’s presidency in Venezuela. I was 11 years old at the time, while my two younger brothers were 9 and 7, when we moved into a small apartment in a suburb of Miami.

During my first six years in the US, I lived like any other regular middle school–aged kid. I went to school, skateboarded in the evening with my friends, and attempted to integrate as much as possible into my new country and culture. Then in 2007, I became undocumented the day my parents lost their immigration status.

What happened was my family’s immigration attorney mishandled our case. She misfiled forms and gave us poor advice, which resulted in the rejection of our green card application. Ironically, even when immigrants try to get in “line” and do things the “legal way,” there are still plenty of pitfalls that could place them on a fast track to deportation. My entire family became removable from the United States at any point in time.

Scared of what our future in the United States would look like without the proper documentation, my parents decided to recommit to their original reason for coming here: to provide a better life for my brothers and me. That goal, of course, included abiding by the laws of this country and contributing back through our taxes.

To this day, I follow this philosophy. I have never failed to file my taxes. In fact, paying my taxes is one of the few experiences that makes me feel unbound by the constraints of my lack of legal status. I live under a daily reminder that DACA, the Obama-era program that allows me to drive, work, and live free from the fear of deportation, could be terminated by the Trump administration at any point in time. Paying taxes reaffirms my commitment to this country and proves that undocumented immigrants, like my family and me, are not the freeloaders Republicans make us out to be.

Growing up, I recall my parents feeling the same kind of way. “Ay, hijo,” my mother would tell me from time to time, “If we are to be deported, at least I hope the government takes into consideration the fact that we have always paid our taxes.”

Paying taxes as an undocumented immigrant comes with its own complications

Filing taxes may be a relatively painless process for many Americans, but for immigrants like me, tax season always brings a new set of challenges, questions, and, in some instances, concerns. Unfortunately, many Americans often forget about the tax contributions undocumented immigrants make on a regular basis. That becomes a problem when undocumented people like me try to use tax services and are met with confusion and bad information.

A couple of years ago in grad school, I had a conversation with the university’s office of financial services. After requesting a specific tax form, the office told me that the computer system had not generated a form due to my immigration classification in their records.

“Are you sure you need this form?” the financial services officer stated, almost in disbelief that I intended to file my taxes. I replied with a simple, “Yes.” Evidently she had never seen a situation like mine before.

A visit to a local accountant that year prompted even more questions, despite having all of the forms and paperwork required to file my taxes. The accountant asked why I had been without health insurance for a specified period of time, and told me I could be penalized under the Affordable Care Act. “I do not qualify for the ACA. I am an undocumented immigrant,” I revealed to the tax preparer.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the tax preparer had no idea what I was talking about. I used my phone to navigate to the National Immigration Law Center’s website, and showed her that undocumented immigrants, or “illegals” as the tax preparer repeated, were exempt from any ACA penalty. The accountant finally agreed to move on to the next step in my tax filing process.

This would not be the first time I ran into this situation. One of my younger brothers, who is also undocumented, was fined by his tax preparer for not having any medical insurance. After returning to his tax preparer’s office with that same National Immigration Law Center webpage pulled up on my phone, he was refunded his $90 penalty.

It’s troubling how many tax preparers I’ve come across who are unaware of this exemption. It makes me wonder how many undocumented immigrants across the country are penalized and forced to pay fines for not having health insurance as required by the ACA. It just goes to show you the lack of awareness that some undocumented Americans may have about their taxes could lead to further pitfalls in their filing process.

The tax dollars of undocumented immigrants are, unfortunately, fueling the Trump agenda

Donald Trump, who ran on a campaign demonizing “illegal” immigrants, is nearing his 100 days benchmark as president of the United States. The American people have yet to see his tax returns. Yet undocumented immigrants like Belen Sisa are using Tax Day to reveal how much they contribute to the United States. The hypocrisy is simply unmeasurable.

Regardless of whether you believe Trump’s excuses for withholding his tax returns, the truth is that undocumented immigrant do in fact pay their fair share of taxes.

A new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that undocumented immigrants, the same people Trump referred to as drug dealers, murderers, and rapists, contribute $11.74 billion in state and local taxes.

Even more admirable is the fact that many undocumented immigrants risk their lives and deportation in order to work and generate the income necessary to pay taxes. Yet Trump’s un-American and racist deportation policies want to build a wall, unleash a deportation force, and incarcerate undocumented immigrants using the very tax dollars they are contributing. He wants to remove undocumented parents who are dropping off their kids to school or are making their way to work.

Undocumented immigrants also contribute billions to the Social Security program without receiving benefits unless they are able to adjust their immigration status. Yet Trump claimed on the campaign trail that illegal immigrants are being treated better than veterans in our country. This is flat out false.

Is that the kind of values our country should be proud of? Where we punish, and deport aspiring Americans for attempting to work and provide a better life for their loved ones while contributing back to our country through taxes? I say it is not.

Here’s the truth: The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that the 11 million undocumented immigrants nationwide contribute an average of 8 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes, which is comparable to the state and local tax rate of middle-income taxpayers.

Moreover, that same report projects that if all undocumented immigrants residing in the United States were given legal status as part of comprehensive immigration, their state and local tax contributions would increase by an estimated $2.1 billion a year.

Our current president may see undocumented immigrants as nothing but “illegal aliens” who should be swept up when he “takes the shackles off” the deportation force. And yet we are the ones willing to work and contribute, against all odds, to the country we call home.

I am an undocumented immigrant, and unlike President Trump, I am willing to show my tax returns. Will the president of the United States of America demonstrate that he contributes his fair share just like undocumented immigrants like me?

This essay is adapted from an article originally published in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Juan Escalante is an undocumented immigrant and DACA beneficiary. He loves pineapple on pizza, black coffee, and public radio. You may find him taking photos around Tallahassee, Florida, whenever he is not advocating for immigration policies at the state or national level. Find him on Twitter at @JuanSaaa.

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at