Alejo bill would provide protection from deportation for undocumented workers who file
Despite huge recent gains in immigration reform—including last year’s Trust Act, which could prevent as many as 20,000 deportations in California by one estimate—it continues to be a controversial movement. It’s been almost 30 years since the passage of a comprehensive federal immigration reform bill, and one Pajaro Valley lawmaker has decided to take matters into his own hands at the state level, with a bill that would fundamentally change the immigration landscape—and potentially reap billions in revenue.
Luis Alejo, assemblymember of California’s 30th District, which encompasses the Salinas and Pajaro valleys, is the author of Assembly Bill (AB) 2014, which would provide incentives for undocumented workers to file income taxes. If the bill is passed into law, it would give undocumented immigrants who file a tax return amnesty from deportation, and the possibility of gaining temporary work permits. Although it is currently possible for immigrants illegally in this country to file income taxes, Alejo’s proposed changes would make it more far attractive for them to do so.
“The intent of the bill is to be able to address what Congress has been unable to do for now 28 years,” says Alejo. “Basically this is the only bill moving in Sacramento that is trying to address this critical issue for California, especially for our region, which depends heavily on agriculture and immigrant labor. What we’re trying to do with AB 2014 is create a first-of-its-kind program in the country.”
Alejo’s bill, which passed the Assembly Committee of Revenue and Taxation in late April, would require the Franchise Tax Board to advertise that those who are ineligible to gain full U.S. citizenship can still file state taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). The governor would have the authority to ask the Obama Administration to grant relief from deportation to all tax-paying undocumented immigrants, except for those who have committed serious or violent felonies.
“California would have to enter into an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the Obama Administration to be able to have this authority delegated to the state authorizing California to be able to issue temporary work permits and also have relief from deportations for those participating in this program,” says Alejo.
Alejo, a former Watsonville mayor, has worked to expand the rights of undocumented immigrants before. Last year Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill authored by Alejo to give the undocumented a path to receive drivers’ licenses.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are more than 2.8 million undocumented immigrants in California. A report released by the University of Southern California in 2013 stated that they comprise 9 percent of California’s workforce. Collecting income taxes from such a large group could potentially provide the state government billions of dollars in revenue, says Alejo.
Currently, undocumented workers can attain an ITIN and file income taxes regardless of their legal status. But fearing deportation, some undocumented workers choose not to expose their nationalities to the federal government—even though they could be eligible for refunds.
“Some undocumented workers do file a tax return, but I think there is a large number who just don’t take that final step each year,” says Doug Keegan, attorney and program director of the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project.
Keegan says AB 2014, if passed into law, could provide undocumented workers with a good first step on the path to citizenship.
“Oftentimes when someone does have an opportunity to apply for legal status they are required to demonstrate that they have paid their taxes. In fact, all of the proposals for comprehensive immigration reform have included a requirement that applicants demonstrate that they have filed and paid their taxes,” says Keegan. “To that extent, I think it has a beneficial effect as well, because if we do get immigration reform it is going to require it anyway.”
Although the bill is in the early stages, at least one supporter of stricter immigration rules is speaking out. Conservative Jon Vinson wrote a paper opposing Alejo’s bill for Californians for Population Stabilization, an anti-amnesty group. Vinson argues the new rule would promote lawlessness because undocumented immigrants don’t have the legal right to work here in the first place.
Keegan predicts the bill might draw more arguments from illegal immigration opponents.
“The downside is that it may elicit a reaction from the anti-immigrant forces who see everything as somehow trying to promote undocumented immigration, when in fact these immigrants are here working. They are contributing to our economy already. Why shouldn’t we do what we can to normalize or legalize their status?” Keegan says.
The next step for AB 2014 is the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where the bill will be considered at the end of the month. If passed there, the bill would face a vote with the California State Assembly in June, and then to the Senate before going to the governor’s desk for approval. If the federal government does give authority to California to provide amnesty for tax-paying undocumented workers, the bill would pass into law as of January 1, 2015.
“We’re still at the very beginning of the process,” says Alejo, who is running for his third and final two-year term in the legislature next month.
Ultimately, AB 2014 could temporarily fill a void while the federal government struggles to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
“If, come November or December, Congress gets their act together and passes immigration reform, then this bill won’t be needed. But if it doesn’t, we will already have a bill signed into law as an alternative, and will then be able to move forward and create a program with the Obama Administration,” says Alejo. “It’s a backup, a plan B in case Congress fails to pass immigration reform by the end of this year.”