Do Illegal Immigrants Pay Taxes?


updated Aug. 24, 2012

Yes, illegal/unauthorized/undocumented immigrants generally pay taxes the same way you and I pay them, but usually without access to the benefits that come with being a taxpayer.

How they pay

Income Tax

Every time you receive a paycheck, you probably notice that something is missing. That’s because your employer automatically withholds federal, state, and local income taxes and Social Security and Medicare taxes. Immigrants also have money automatically deducted directly from their paychecks —even those who are here illegally. But how? Well, the Social Security Administration estimates that 75% of undocumented immigrants are actually on formal payrolls and are paid by check just like anyone else. They get on the payroll by using fake or fraudulent social security numbers or social security numbers of the deceased, which are easily available from counterfeiters for a couple hundred dollars. A growing number of undocumented immigrants now file their income taxes using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs). ITINs are issued by the IRS for filing purposes only and do not provide permission to work. According to the most recent estimates, at least 3 million unauthorized immigrants filed income taxes using ITINs in 2009. (NOTE: the IRS does not report undocumented immigrants to the Department of Homeland Security.)

Sales Tax

Every time you buy something, you pay sales tax. That money goes to state and local governments. Staying at a hotel or renting a car, you pay state and local taxes. If you fill up your gas tank, you automatically pay state and federal gasoline taxes. If you buy liquor or cigarettes, you automatically pay various local, state, and federal excise taxes. Immigrants—legal and undocumented—all buy things, and thus pay these taxes as part of their purchase.

Property Tax

Local governments also collect property taxes, which are a percentage of the value of one’s home and fund services like schools, certain medical services, and police and fire stations. Immigrants—legal and unauthorized—pay these taxes directly if they own a home, or indirectly if they rent (clearly, landlords factor property taxes into rent).

Possible overpayment

  • Unauthorized immigrants pay into Social Security via automatic payroll deductions, but they can never claim Social Security benefits because they are here illegally and because their Social Security numbers are fake. In 2005, it was estimated that undocumented immigrants paid about $7 billion per year in Social Security taxes that they will never be able to reclaim.
  • The Tax Policy Center estimates that 78 percent of American households that earned less than $33,000 owed no federal income taxes in 2011. Many low-income taxpayers only paid marginal amounts if they did owe. Because of their low income levels, most illegal immigrants would naturally fall into either of these categories. Many illegal immigrants don’t file, however, because they fear deportation. And if they don’t file, they are never refunded money that was automatically withheld from their paychecks. When a refund is owed but not paid out, that’s free money for the government.

Possible underpayment

  • Undocumented immigrants—and immigrants in general—are more likely to work in the informal or cash economy because these types of jobs are often the least desirable, most unstable and inconsistent, and lowest paid. Informal and cash jobs create big incentives not to claim cash income—undocumented immigrants and citizens alike find these incentives compelling. Most waiters and bartenders, for example, don’t claim and pay taxes on cash tips (or if they do, it’s usually just a small percentage). The high school student down the street usually doesn’t pay taxes on money earned from mowing your lawn or shoveling your driveway. Legally speaking, they’re supposed to claim this income.
  • Something important to keep in mind: the incomes of migrants working in the informal economy are generally so low—less than $13,000 per year, according a recent UCLA study—that most would ultimately be exempt from paying income taxes or have extremely low tax liability even if they did file and claim cash income.

Public Benefits

  • As taxpayers, most of us are eligible for an array of social safety nets like food stamps and unemployment insurance. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act barred illegal immigrants from receiving any welfare benefits except in medical emergencies. It also barred legal immigrants from eligibility for welfare benefits during their first 5 years in the country. So, no, illegal immigrants do not exploit welfare services quite simply because they are not eligible to exploit them.
  • In Plyler v. Doe (1982), the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to deny undocumented immigrants K-12 public education. Denying education would not only be crippling to the immigrants themselves, but would have negative implications for the rest of society. But regardless, by directly or indirectly paying property taxes, undocumented immigrants pay into public education. In general, immigrants benefit from police service, firefighters, national defense, parks, and other public goods. But again, the taxes they pay contribute to paying for these services.
  • Fourteen states offer free prenatal and postnatal care to pregnant women who are the country illegally. Some state legislators justify these benefits as long-term cost-saving measures, others as being consistent with pro-life beliefs. Low-income women with children under 5 are also eligible for WIC benefits regardless of immigration status.
  • American-born children of undocumented immigrants are eligible for benefits like Medicaid and food stamps. But it’s important to remember that the recipients of these benefits are children that the 14th Amendment has deemed full citizens of United States.

Tax credits

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration estimates that unauthorized immigrants received $4.2 billion in child tax credits in 2010. There is currently no legal mechanism that bans unauthorized immigrants from child tax credit refunds (although they are banned from refunds related to the Earned Income tax credit). Read more on this issue at and the Washington Post.

Are unauthorized immigrants a drain on the system?

  • There’s no simple answer to this question because no one knows exactly how many people live and work in the U.S. illegally, exactly where they live, how much they pay in taxes, or the extent to which they benefit from public goods. This point underscores the difficultly of studying illegal immigration: the people involved do not want to be detected.
  • Any so-called “hard numbers” you see on the costs or contributions of illegal immigrants are often little more than guesses based on imperfect estimates of the size and distribution of the illegal population. This is the case with two widely-cited (and highly unscientific) “studies” on this topic: one from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy and one from the Center for Immigration Studies.
  • It’s important to understand how certain organizations make their guesstimates. Guesstimates published by anti-immigration organizations like the Center for Immigration Studies, for example, include public services rightfully used by the American-born children in calculating the costs of illegal immigration.
  • At the federal level, some researchers believe that undocumented immigrants pay in more than they take out due to large and automatic contributions to Social Security that can never be claimed.
  • Figures vary greatly at the state and local levels. Areas with higher concentrations of undocumented immigrants, for example, spend more educating and providing emergency healthcare to undocumented immigrants than areas with lower concentrations. But this is not because undocumented immigrants are out to evade taxes and milk the system —as we learned above, most pay sales, property, and income taxes automatically and are ineligible for the vast majority of social services. Rather, the reason undocumented immigrants may take out more than they contribute has mostly to do with their status as low wage earners. Even if they use the same amount of public services as wealthier households, low-income households (be they made up of citizens or immigrants) are generally a net drain on public finances because our progressive system requires them to pay less income tax and by virtue of having less purchasing power, they pay less sales and property tax.


If you have further questions, please leave them in the comments section and I’ll do my best to address them.


  1. Sceptical says:

    There are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics. The Social Security Admin. claims that 75% of undocumented aliens pay payroll taxes. The SS Admin. can only measure stats from filings. How can it estimate 75% when it doesn’t know the size of the population because the rest work “under-the-table” and don’t file? Secondly, there is the Earned Income Credit where you pay the payroll tax, but get it back through the EIC. Net tax is $0 or even a refund. Of course everyone pays sales tax, so what’s your point? My sister works at a hospital where 90% of the patients are illegal aliens who don’t pay for healthcare and the pittance they pay in sales tax could not possibly cover the cost of this hospital and the schools their children attend. Property tax? Are you kidding me? The first question I have for you is how does an undocumented immigrant with no identification buy a house or car? I had to give my mortgage company a lot of documents. When I moved to a different state I couldn’t get a drivers license without my birth certificate even though I had a valid license from another state. Then there is Sec. 8 housing which is a circular payment. Owner pays property tax and federal and state government pay much more for the sec. 8 subsidy. As a tax professional, I have dealt with a W-2 claimed on SS# stole from retired 80 year old woman. The illegal immigrant claimed numerous dependents to insure that there were no with holdings of federal and state income tax. I don’t mean to pick on immigrants because I believe the real criminals are the employers who benefit from the cheap labor and push the social costs on the U.S. citizens. The government needs to go after the employers and assess heavy penalties for disguising payroll as subcontract labor. Another trick is paying unreported cash for labor with unreported cash income. The key to solving the illegal immigrant problem is make lots of surprise visits and initiate payroll audits without warning. Good luck getting our government to do that. Our politicians don’t want to piss off their rich constituents who support their campaigns in exchange for a blind eye.

  2. Getting mad says:

    America needs to grow a pair of balls and become more aggressive with implementing it’s own rules. Allowing ILLEGAL immigrants to be here in the first place is just showing the world how lenient our legal system really is. I am FLOORED that the IRS does not report ILLEGAL immigrants to ICE. Doesn’t this practice seem counterproductive. The IRS, which is a federal agency, is working against the Federal government. Why aren’t we all working together to fix America’s problems?

  3. Tyra says:

    I honestly feel something should be done about illegal Mexicans. I have no problem with Mexicans being here, it’s just the illegal ones that hide and steal and increase violence that annoy me. I feel they do drain resources to a certain extent. I want them to have better lives but they should first become citizens.

    • Joan says:

      You are such an idiot like is so easy to become legal.. It is easier to come illegal and don’t worry about all the stops that immigration put in your way.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I agree that in order to have better lives they must become citizens, but it’s not that easy. Also you should consider your choice of words. Do you honestly think that it’s only the illegal Mexicans that are stealing and increasing violence? What do you have to say about all of the other ethnicities in in this country, not to say all of the other ethnicities behind bars. I know plenty of illegal Mexicans who have come to this country and worked hard for what they deserve. Not once did they have to resort to violence or crimes to achieve it. Think about the fact that the words you say may, like in this case, make you sound uninformed, naïve, and offensive.

  4. nancy says:

    What would be economic repercussions if all illegal aliens were suddenly deported? I realize this is not going to happen. I just wonder what the results might be, hypothetically.

  5. ds says:

    How about employers that are not paying the proper taxes?
    That is the main problem and one that never gets attention

    Please address the employer issue …

  6. responsible says:

    shame on people who come here ILLEGALLY, get pregnant repeatedly and use our welfare system. if your life sucks so much, dont create more lives and complain about how you and your kids are treated. Doing so is the epitome of selfish and greedy.

    • Roy Germano says:

      You should check out my movie. It might fill in some of the gaps for you. It’s called The Other Side of Immigration and can be streamed online.

    • Joan says:

      What ever there is TONS of white trash don’t you seee!!

    • Marie says:

      I’m a white female with no ties to immigrants (legal or not). However; I do know that having more babies does NOT get you more money via the welfare system. I know this, not because I utilize the welfare system but because I’m educated. Hispanics, for example, have high fertility rates due to their lack of healthcare services. If they had easier access to healthcare they would be more likely to take birth control. I would suggest if you’re going to argue on a public forum that you rely on empirical research rather than CNN or facebook!

      • oopreal says:

        Really? so you are telling me that Hispanics don’t know how to abstain from sexual relations not to have so many babies, oh boy do they really need to be educated, No they do take advantage of our system, and because they are minorities, they will take my two kids college education away not because they had an equal essay to get into the college, but because they are minorities. I saw this in the military in the 1990’s and minorities took good sailors jobs away who were much better qualified for the position that is why on an application race and sex should not be included!! I have seen this first hand not on face book or other, this is real life!! it should be based on intelligence , integrity, and meeting qualifications for the job

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