As the rebate checks from Uncle Sam continue arriving in mailboxes, a provision limiting the benefit to Social Security cardholders is drawing controversy in California and around the nation.
Though the economic stimulus package was designed to exclude illegal immigrants, the restriction has also disqualified hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel, foreign high-tech workers and other U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.
Under the program, if a U.S. citizen filed a joint tax return with a spouse who does not have a Social Security number, neither will receive the money, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
Now a coalition of legal immigrants and advocates is urging legislators to change the rules.
"If we are trying to draw a line to exclude undocumented immigrants, why on earth are we going after military families and the families of U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who are obeying the law?" asked Paul Donnelly, who started a group called Reform the Rebate.
Alvaro Toledo, who lives outside of Sacramento, recently learned that he won't receive the $1,200 he was expecting.
Toledo is a naturalized citizen from Guatemala, but his Peruvian wife is still in the process of becoming a legal permanent resident. Because the couple filed taxes together, Toledo is ineligible.
"I think I am entitled," said Toledo, who earns a little more than $50,000 as a community program specialist and has two children whom he claims as dependents. "I pay my taxes. I am a citizen."
Toledo said he had hoped to use the money to help pay his mortgage.
The checks are part of a $168-billion stimulus package passed by Congress in an attempt to boost spending and help the economy. The government started distributing the money last month. Most taxpayers will receive between $300 and $600, along with $300 per child.
During the congressional debate earlier this year, an anti-illegal immigration group lobbied legislators to ensure that undocumented immigrants would be barred from receiving the rebates.
"To be spending money the government doesn't have to be putting money in the pockets of people who shouldn't be here in the first place is just wrong," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Mehlman, however, said that perhaps there should be an exception for U.S. citizen military personnel who were disqualified based on their foreign spouses.
The package excludes from receiving a rebate those who file returns that include anyone with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which is issued by the IRS to people who cannot get Social Security numbers, including illegal immigrants and legal immigrants who are not authorized to work.
Last year alone, the IRS issued nearly 1.77 million tax identification numbers, which are used to pay taxes, open bank accounts and purchase homes.
In 2005, the most recent year available, more than 3.2 million tax returns were filed with the identification numbers.
A spokeswoman for Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) said the economic stimulus package was never designed to cover everyone.
"It was not billed as that," Jo Maney said. "It was made clear at the outset what the eligibility factors were."
But Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said excluding some U.S. citizens -- especially soldiers married to foreigners -- "was just stupid."
"People were so excited about being anti-illegal alien that they punished Americans instead," she said. "I think it's unfair."
Among those who are ineligible are doctors, researchers and computer scientists working in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in California, said Aman Kapoor, the founder of Immigration Voice, a grass-roots organization of skilled foreign workers pushing for immigration reform. Many of their spouses either are ineligible to work or are in the process of getting green cards.
"We see this as a kind of discrimination," he said. "And it will specifically hurt the California economy."
Angela Sanbrano, president of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, said this is another example of how the government doesn't take into account that many families include both legal and illegal immigrants. Making many families ineligible is counterproductive, she said, because the families that are excluded could have helped stimulate the economy.