The increase in filings comes amid talk of an immigration overhaul, with some proposals introduced in Congress linking amnesty to the payment of taxes. Many illegal immigrants showing up at tax preparation offices around the country say they hope that filing a return will create a paper trail that could lead to citizenship one day.
In Raleigh, N.C., a tax preparer found 350 immigrants waiting outside his office at 7 a.m., including one dragging a suitcase that held $14,000 in cash for back taxes. In Baltimore, a community agency offering free tax help that was deserted the day after 69 people were rounded up in immigration raids elsewhere in the city was crowded again within 24 hours.
And a help center in Queens did record business among illegal immigrants like Dionicio Quinde Lima, who has worked in construction strictly off the books since he arrived from Ecuador three years ago, but was eager to join the fold of United States taxpayers last week.
“I feel it’s my responsibility to pay,” said Mr. Lima, 39, clutching a $202 money order for the Internal Revenue Service. “And if it helps me get papers, fine. The most important would be a permit to travel back and forth to see my family.”
Illegal immigrants do not have Social Security numbers, but the Internal Revenue Service allows them to file taxes by assigning applicants individual taxpayer identification numbers. The numbers were introduced in 1996 to encourage noncitizens with United States income, including foreign investors, to file returns. It is generally accepted that most of the 11 million numbers issued since then have gone to illegal immigrants.
The I.R.S., which does not ask about immigration status, is barred from divulging taxpayer information, with very limited exceptions, to other agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security.
In the 2005 tax year, the last for which such data is available, 1.9 million returns were filed with the primary taxpayer’s using an individual taxpayer number, known as an ITIN, up 30 percent from 2004.
Applications for the numbers spiked last year, with 1.5 million new ITINs issued through the beginning of November, more than any full year since the program started.
Nancy Mathis, a spokeswoman for the I.R.S., said the agency did not know the reason for the increase, but added, “It is likely due to more effective outreach by community organizations and proposed legislation last year linking payment of taxes to eventual citizenship.”
In 2005 alone, more than $5 billion in tax liability — the total owed, including money withheld from paychecks during the year — was reported in the 2.9 million returns that listed at least one person with an ITIN, she said. And between 1996 and 2003, such filers reported nearly $50 billion of tax liability.
Organizations pushing for stricter immigration enforcement have criticized the use of the individual numbers by illegal immigrants, saying that allowing them to file returns, pay taxes and receive refund checks legitimizes their illegal presence. But the I.R.S. says it is just doing its job as a tax collector, and is not an immigration enforcement agency.
“Clearly, we maintain a separation between the two systems,” Mark W. Everson, the commissioner of the I.R.S., said recently. “We want your money whether you are here legally or not and whether you earned it legally or not.”
And because most immigration bills make the payment of back taxes a prerequisite for legal status, that message seems to be getting through more clearly than ever.
“Right now there’s quite a stampede going on in many areas, including mine,” said Blaire Borthayre, a consultant in Hispanic marketing based in Raleigh who described early-morning crowds gathering outside Family Tax Service, her husband’s tax preparation business. “It’s word of mouth.”
One client, she said, was a Mexican man who lugged in a suitcase holding $14,000, cash he had set aside to pay his taxes over six years of work as a landscaper. Like many, he had only recently learned that he could file a legitimate tax return, said Ms. Borthayre, who is the author of several books on tax preparation with ITINs.
Like Social Security numbers, individual taxpayer numbers have nine digits, but all begin with a “9.” The appeal of the numbers grew as they were accepted in some places as alternative identification to open a bank account, qualify for credit or even obtain a driver’s license — all uses that the I.R.S. opposed and has tried to curb, Ms. Mathis said.