WASHINGTON (AP) - Republicans are looking to deny child tax credits to illegal immigrants - refund checks averaging $1,800 a family - in an effort that has roused anger among Hispanics and some Democrat lawmakers.
The proposal, which would require people who claim the federal credit to have Social Security numbers to prove they're legal workers, is being offered as a way to help pay for extending the Social Security tax cut for most American wage-earners. It would trim federal spending by about $10 billion over a decade.
Senate Democrat leader Harry Reid of Nevada says the proposal unfairly goes after the children of poor Hispanic workers. Such kids often are U.S. citizens, even when their parents aren't, because they were born in this country.
House Social Security subcommittee Chairman Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, says illegal immigrants bilked the nation out of $4.2 billion in 2010 through a child tax break.
Says Leticia Miranda, senior policy adviser of the National Council of La Raza: "People who are making close to the minimum wage and are raising children in this country - and we're asking them to pay for the payroll tax cut?" She says, "It's outrageous and it's crazy."
On the other side, Republicans and some Democrats say what's crazy is even having a debate over whether the government should be cutting checks to people who have sneaked into the country illegally. It's hard to imagine there isn't a healthy majority, even in the Democrat-controlled Senate, to stop the practice - if it's actually brought to a vote.
"We have rules about tax credits and benefits, and it seems to me they need to be applied fairly and across the board," said Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is facing a difficult re-election bid in Missouri. "If there are rules, they need to be enforced. I think it's just that simple. I don't think it's complicated."
Illegal immigrants have been barred from other refundable tax credits - in which low-income workers not only don't owe income taxes but receive payments from the government - such as the earned income tax credit. Such credits are a popular anti-poverty tool in part because a recipient has to hold a job to receive the benefit.
But a 1997 law enacting a $500 per-child tax credit doesn't specifically exclude illegal immigrants from collecting. It was significantly expanded in 2001 to gradually reach $1,000, and rules were eased so that many more people could get it on a refundable basis. It was made more generous in 2009 so that more taxpayers could claim the credit or claim a larger amount. The expanded credit is slated to expire at the end of the year along with other Bush-era tax cuts and return to $500 per child, though it's commonly assumed that it will remain up to $1,000 per child.
"Although the law prohibits aliens residing without authorization in the United States from receiving most federal public benefits, an increasing number of these individuals are filing tax returns claiming this refundable credit," Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, said when the House debated the payroll tax cut measure in December. "Illegal immigrants bilked $4.2 billion from the U.S. taxpayers (in 2010). I think that it's time that we fixed it."