Free tax prep and refunds at Puente help the medicine go down

Sometimes the best surprises are the ones that arise from doing the right thing. That’s what made Omar Ortega’s first tax refund such an unexpected, and pleasant experience. It was just a check for $50, but Ortega, then 16 years old, was shocked. “I was ecstatic. Even getting that little amount was great to me,” he recalls. He doesn’t remember what he spent the money on, but he does remember the reaction he got at school when he told his friends about it. “Seeing their faces when I told them, they were like, ‘Wait, I can do that? No way!’… It was a good feeling.”

Omar Ortega

Omar Ortega

Ortega, now 21, has been filing his tax returns using Puente’s free tax prep services  starting during his earliest working days as a Puente Summer Youth Program employee. This year he came full circle as the newly minted Site Coordinator for Puente’s tax program. He still thinks tax refunds are a great incentive, although tax-related meetings and trainings – which he has had to spend a lot of his time on – are not. His favorite part of helping people file their taxes is revealing the size of their refunds, a happy surprise. Then, when they go to pay for their tax prep, he reminds them that the Puente services are free.

Puente helped 79 local families and individuals file taxes this year, roughly on par with last year’s clientele. Altogether, they earned $89,946 in federal returns and $16,614 in state refunds. The people served have ranged from single contract workers to families earning a dual income with multiple dependents. Some were English speakers, some Spanish-only.

Like most people, Luis Flores and his wife were not exactly looking forward to tax time. But by the end of their tax session at Puente, they were feeling very relieved. “Our experience went better than we thought, as we weren’t expecting a refund. However we did receive a refund, and that made us really happy. The people at Puente have great people skills, and made us feel comfortable,” says Flores.

Many – nearly half – of those who filed are unauthorized immigrants who live in the community, according to Ortega. They used an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, rather than a Social Security number to file.

“We’ve had several people, including those with Social Security numbers, go back and file their taxes from past years as well,” observes Ortega. What accounts for the enthusiasm? “They want to do their taxes the right way. They want to be law-abiding citizens and be able to feel good about themselves.”

Filing taxes is required for those not authorized to work in the U.S. if they are making more than $10,000 annually. People who file tend to see it as an investment. They believe it creates a paper trail that could  help them demonstrate that they are honest and also help to prove their residency, should Congress pass a comprehensive immigration reform law of which DAPA is a step but is not the final solution. The government says it does not keep track of the immigration status of anyone who files. In 2011, the most recent year available, the U.S. government issued 1.6 million ITINs. Not all are used for tax purposes, but often double as identification numbers for bank accounts and other forms of registration like health insurance.

Some people who don’t file their taxes are passing up an opportunity to see a refund, says Ortega. Meanwhile, those who are on payroll, but using invalid Social Security numbers instead of being paid under the table, already have their wages garnished by the government. They pay into a pool that benefits U.S. citizens, but these individuals do not enjoy any of those public benefits themselves.

This year’s tax return included questions about health insurance for the first time, under provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Those who answered ‘no’ on the health insurance form received a  unpleasant surprise: they were fined $95 per adult or 1% of their income, whichever was greater in 2014.

“There were a lot of people who did not know, even though they had been told all of last year that come tax season, they were going to be charged if they didn’t have health insurance.” says Ortega. The penalty will continue to increase every year that they don’t have health insurance.

Others did know about the penalty but had already decided to take a gamble and pay it, rather than enroll themselves and their families in a program under the Affordable Care Act. But why? Ortega explains that these families often fall into a troubling gray area: they earned slightly too much in 2014 to qualify for Medi-Cal, which is free–yet they don’t earn enough to feel they can afford health insurance under Covered California.

Omar Ortega, left, meets with Miguel Gomez and Catalina Robles.

Omar Ortega, left, meets with Miguel Gomez and Catalina Robles.

“It was hard telling people that their refund was going to be smaller, or that they had to pay because of that,” says Ortega. The gamble may not pay off next year, when the penalties increase to $325 per person.

For more than a year, Puente has mounted a major outreach drive to enroll people in some kind of health insurance program, whether it is Covered California, Medi-Cal, or county programs for undocumented individuals like ACE or Healthy Kids. More than 200 South Coast residents did sign up, thanks to those efforts. And Puente staff is not done yet. In fact, Ortega says that in several cases, when clients finished filing their taxes last week, they were referred directly to Monica Amezcua and Laura Rodriguez, the Community Resource Navigators who handle health insurance enrollments.

“They need the health insurance, and we will make sure they get signed up for an appointment,” he says. If you live on the South Coast and need health insurance please contact Puente at (650) 879-1691 for more information and/or to make an appointment.

Is immigration reform coming? Puente prepares to meet community needs

To people like Carlos Delacruz, the debate over immigration reform in Washington, D.C. this summer brought back a feeling that had become almost remote since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. A feeling of hope.

Delacruz, 35, lives in La Honda and supports his wife and two kids with a job he landed at a rural winery – planting, harvesting, pruning, spraying. He pays his taxes, cashes his checks to buy groceries and gas. He takes English classes at Puente in his spare time.

familiesHe also happens to be undocumented.

If Congress passes a meaningful immigration reform bill this year, it could give Delacruz and his wife, who were born in Jalisco, the opportunity to become documented. Then he could get a job that doesn’t hurt his knees as much as working on steep, hilly vineyards – one that might pay better, like a gardener or groundskeeper.

“I’d like to have more opportunities. If we get the green card, we can also get a driver’s license,” says Delacruz, who currently drives without a license or car insurance.

With Senate approval of “The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act,” undocumented South Coast residents like Delacruz are the closest they’ve ever been to accessing legal papers in decades. Unfortunately, the prospect of meaningful immigration reform has dimmed considerably as Congress heads into the August recess.

Puente views this process as an important opportunity to step in with accurate information, reliable advice, and crucial programs and services to get people on track.

Learn More About
Puente’s plan for legal services

Puente’s plan for adult English classes
Puente’s plan for expanded income tax services.

Locals started contacting Puente for help months ago, says Executive Director Kerry Lobel. Puente has a proven track record of providing legal clinics around immigration topics, as well as working with partners to help people fill out legal documents.

“There’s been quite a buzz: is immigration reform really going to happen this time? People are already calling and asking, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to be ready?’ says Puente Executive Director Kerry Lobel.

Puente, too, has questions. Staff members are attending regional stakeholder meetings to learn all they can, and forming connections with like-minded groups as they try to prepare for a variety of scenarios.

Details are vague, but English proficiency will be an important part of any immigration reform effort – which means Puente’s ESL program would need to grow to meet anticipated demand.

So would Puente’s tax program, which has already seen a bump from locals who want to file taxes to have a paper trail ahead of immigration reform.

Puente’s slate of immigration services will also change. Puente will be   seeking certification as a BIA (Board of Immigration Appeal) Representative, not just help them fill out a form. Puente will also be able to represent people in court.americandream

“We know that whenever any type of immigration legislation comes down, the need for legal services is always the first gatekeeper for people’s well being,” says Manuel Santamaria, Director of Grantmaking with Silicon Valley Community Foundation, who oversees the foundation’s immigrant integration grantmaking strategy.

The University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration estimates that at least 2.6 million Californians are here without papers (8 percent of all adults). They comprise 9 percent of the workforce, and more than half of them are living in poverty.

Their lives won’t change overnight. The immigration bill would carve out a 13-year path to citizenship for those who meet certain qualifications and pass security checks. And that’s after Congress spends  $46 billion to further militarize the border.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about a path to citizenship,” says Santamaria.

It’s the third time in recent memory that Lobel recalls thinking “this may be it!”

“We keep think something is going to come. That’s why we’re helping people become more proficient in English, helping them get their GEDs, and studying for citizenship tests – so that when the day comes, we’ll be ready.”

Bolstering Puente’s income tax services


You know something strange is happening when a group of people who have never paid taxes before turn up at tax time and demand to pay back taxes – going all the way back to 1992.

That’s what happened this spring as Puente staff and volunteers sat down to process tax returns. Of the 72 participants who showed up to take advantage of Puente’s pro bono tax services, some were first-timers who had lived for years in the area as undocumented residents but had never filed a tax return, says Puente Program Director Rita Mancera.

“They brought all their W2s and all these old, crusty papers. They said. ‘If I have to pay anything, I want to pay it now.’”

Puente tax prep

Volunteers Lary Lawson and Rob Johnson prepare taxes.

Mancera attributes this turn of events to the eagerness with which hundreds of South Coast residents would like to obtain legal status in America. They’re approaching Puente for help because they want to create a paper trail in anticipation of immigration reform.

“People keep asking, ‘Should I do my taxes?’ We tell them that now more than ever it’s important, because that’s one of the first things they’re going to ask people to provide – copies of their income tax returns,” Mancera says.

As Congress gears up to debate the prospect of offering legal status to as many as 11 million residents, economists say one aspect is beyond debate: the $2 billion estimated annual fiscal windfall in state and local taxes.

Many workers without a Social Security number still file tax returns using an ITIN, or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, recognized by the IRS. Mancera says dozens of locals do it every year.

But having a Social Security number entitles someone to better tax credits and benefits, including an earned income tax credit for low-income families. Mancera says that qualifying families get a $1,000 tax credit for each child under 17. Those who file with an ITIN get only a portion of that.

Puente staff members and volunteers are discussing how to expand the tax program as demand grows. Mancera says there’s a group that is already committed to filing taxes every year from now on, regardless: young people reporting their first job income, including those who have temporary work permits thanks to DACA. (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order signed June 15, 2012 by President Obama).

For more information about becoming a volunteer tax preparer, call (650)879-1691 ext. 114 or email Abby Mohaupt at