Two weeks before hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens begin applying for legal U.S. residency under the new immigration law, a dispute between federal agencies is threatening to impede the amnesty process.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Internal Revenue Service remain at odds, according to officials of both agencies, over what kind of tax documents the IRS will routinely provide to those seeking to qualify for the amnesty by establishing their continuous residence in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982. This is the most serious of many questions raised over what documents applicants will be submitting.
In the background, exacerbating the dispute, is a conflict of laws. On the one hand, a provision of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 says no alien will be granted permanent residency unless he has paid his taxes, if any were due, for the previous three years. On the other hand, a provision in last year's sweeping immigration law says that documents and proceedings in the amnesty process will be kept strictly confidential by the INS.
The INS is not requiring applicants to prove that they have paid taxes, although any tax records they have will help to establish that they were in the country for the required period of five years.
Duke Austin, chief INS spokesman in Washington, told The Times that IRS officials have refused to come to terms on the documents issue until they receive assurances they will be able to implement the tax law.
New Law an Option
"We haven't resolved any of these issues right now," Austin said. One option would be action by Congress to write a new law to resolve the conflict.
INS officials charged with managing the amnesty processing centers are not inclined to be yielding. "Our law says confidentiality is complete," said William S. King Jr., who is responsible for the centers in the Los Angeles district, where as many as three-quarters of the applications are expected. "It's absolute. No information is going to be provided the IRS or anyone else."
Under the amnesty program, permanent residency status is at least a year and a half away, so there is apparently time to deal with the conflict of laws, although federal authorities have been aware of it for months without doing so.
But the initial amnesty applications--leading, if approved, to 18 months of legal temporary residency--will be accepted by the INS beginning May 5, and most of those close to the situation believe that questions over documents must be resolved now to minimize confusion. The INS is expected to promulgate its final rules for handling the amnesty process by the end of the month.
Interviews last week with immigrants' rights groups, others counseling aliens and INS officials show that uncertainty over what kind of documents should be included in applications remains widespread, and nowhere is the problem more apparent than with tax returns.
Returns 'Good as Gold'
In their advisories to potential applicants, INS officials have been saying certified copies of tax returns "are as good as gold" in proving past residency. While no specific document is required to be included in applicants' files, this, they say, is one of the best.
But several IRS spokesmen said the agency wishes, instead, to provide aliens requesting tax documents nothing more than a "transcript of account," a statement that a tax return was received on a particular date. And, the spokesmen indicated, the IRS's preference is to issue only a "fact of filing certification," a document that is even easier to provide.
If there is a surge of requests for certified copies of past tax returns, "it could take us six months or longer to get them out," said Rod Young, an IRS spokesman in Washington. He noted also there is a $4.25 charge for each year's copy, while the transcripts or facts of filing certifications are free.
As the beginning date for filing the amnesty applications approaches, fears have been expressed by a number of immigrants' rights advocates that the need for multiple documents to establish the aliens' identity and past U.S. residency record will bring chaos to the legalization process.
They envision a rush not only to the IRS but also to school districts, utilities, banks, the courts and employers for a variety of papers that may prove exceedingly difficult and time-consuming for them to produce. In turn, they predict, this will delay the filing of many applications well into the year-long period set aside for filing.
'At Least Two Requests'
Just on tax returns, said Ted McCabe, an official of Catholic Charities in Orange County, "the maximum you can request at one time is for four years, so establishing a five-year record would entail at least two requests to the IRS. Statewide, if everyone applied, that would be 2 or 3 million requests."