(Graphic by Wilson Liévano. Original photo by Gabriela Martinez/WITF)

The woman making tax season less intimidating for migrants

Gabriela Martínez

Gabriela Martínez

Report for America corps member

April 4, 2023

HARRISBURG, PA — Esmirna Jiménez immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 2016, bringing with her degrees in business administration and accounting, and years of  experience as a supply chain manager for a supermarket.

But in the U.S., she had to start over. 

She worked a warehouse job and rented a room to save money. 

She didn’t speak English well, and knew she had to reinvent her career. She has ended up filling a need she didn’t even know existed at the time. 

She got an online MBA, worked to get certified as a tax preparer and set out to build her own business. The owner of a Derry Street bodega in Harrisburg gave her a break: Space to set up and hand out business cards.

“I had to start doing people’s taxes within five minutes of being in that supermarket,”Jiménez said. “People had a need for these services.”

Her work is an example of what culturally-competent tax services could look like for a segment of the population that isn’t often thought of when it comes to tax time. 

More than 160,000 undocumented immigrants live in Pennsylvania, and roughly 86 percent are  of working age, according to  New American Economy. According to the same analysis, undocumented immigrants paid $208 million in state and local taxes in Pennsylvania in 2019, and more than $342 million in federal taxes.

In 2021, undocumented households contributed $30.8 billion in total taxes, including  $18.6 billion in federal income taxes and $12.2 billion in state and local taxes, according to national data from the American Community Survey.

However, immigrants still face many barriers that deter them from reporting their income, like a lack of translation services, financial limitations, poor access to transportation, and misinformation about the process of filing taxes.

During tax season, Jimenez goes to Pedro Ferreras's barbershop every Sunday to offer walk-in tax services. (Photo by Gabriela Martínez/WITF)

Jiménez is one of the few tax preparers in the area who is a native Spanish speaker and is an IRS Certified Acceptance Agent, who can help people who do not qualify for a Social Security number. Typically, undocumented immigrants can file taxes using a temporary Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).  

Now, during tax season, she knows she will be working long days for at least a month and a half to help people meet the April 18 filing deadline.

On Sundays, she drives from her home in Carlisle to Harrisburg to offer walk-in services at Pedro Ferreras’s home barbershop in Allison Hill. From 10 to 5, she is stationed at a plastic foldable desk with her laptop. Against the backdrop of a buzzing trimmer and oldies playing from Ferreras’s speakers, Jiménez pores over her clients’ W-2s and IRS tax applications.

When she started, word about Jiménez’s services spread quickly, so other people would invite her to set up at their venues. She became a traveling tax preparer for a while. 

“I was running around like a crazy person, with my suitcase, my handbag, basically all my stuff, setting everything up and then packing it up again,” Jiménez said.

But she decided to settle on Ferreras’s barber shop because it is on Derry Street, one of the busiest commercial strips in Allison Hill. Being there allows her to serve people who may not have transportation.

Eventually, people started asking her for meetings to discuss private financial matters. That’s when she realized she needed her own office.

Jiménez’s office in Carlisle is small. Most days it is just her; sometimes her 3-year-old daughter Natasha is there playing music videos on Youtube on her mother’s smart phone. 

While tax preparation is her main trade, Jiménez also helps with naturalization forms, provides notary services and officiates weddings, and does financial counseling to help with credit repair.

When people enter her office, the first thing they see is a wall covered with Latin-American flags. Every time Jiménez works with someone from a new country, she adds a new flag to the collection. It’s her clients’ favorite part of the office.

“It makes them feel at home,” Jiménez said. “When you arrive in a country as an immigrant and you see your flag, the sensation that it produces is comforting.” 

Her business, Monetaric Multi Services Business, serves around 500 people in central Pennsylvania, the majority of whom are Spanish speakers.

Jandry Gil has been a client of Monetaric Multi Services for a few years. Before finding Monetaric, Gil would hear about cases of people getting their personal information stolen by people claiming to be certified tax preparers. With Monetaric Multi Services, she feels safe.

“I told her, she should go into psychology, because here she has to listen to all of her clients’ stories, and she listens with such love and patience,” Gil said.

Esmirna Jimenez is at her business in Carlisle, Monetaric Multi Services. (Photo by Gabriela Martínez/WITF)

Jiménez’s work is a solution to many challenges undocumented people face at tax time. But she is only one person.

Daniel Cortes, an immigration lawyer from the Greater Reading Immigration Project, sees a need for more safe and affordable tax services that are tailored to the needs of immigrants.

Immigrants may not get a W-2, or get the wrong W-2, from an employer. They may not have a passport, and might live far away from a consulate – a particular problem for Venezuelans and Cubans, who have no embassies in the U.S. Also, immigrants with children who are U.S. citizens often do not know that they qualify for child tax credits.

Immigrants who are undocumented might also be afraid of applying for an ITIN number and filing a tax return because they believe it might increase their likelihood of being deported. 

However, the IRS says ITIN numbers “do not serve any purpose other than federal tax reporting.” Even if an undocumented is using a falsified or stolen Social Security number for work, the IRS will still accept an ITIN number on the tax form, Cortes said.

Esmirna Jimenez poring over her clients’ applications at Pedro Ferreras’s home barbershop. (Photo by Gabriela Martínez/WITF)

There are also instances where immigrants are exposed to fraud and manipulation.

“We’ve had situations where tax preparers either charge big amounts of money” to prepare taxes, he said, and “sometimes there are situations where people steal people’s tax returns or the refunds.” 

Many immigration organizations warn people about so-called “notarios,” people who claim to be certified notaries, and often try to double as tax preparers. They usually lure people with the promise of securing a large refund. Because these scam tax preparers often falsify information or fill out the application incorrectly, the taxpayer might be subject to an IRS audit, which could lead to a fine, a lawsuit or immigration issues.

Having more Certified Acceptance Agents who can help people apply for ITIN numbers would be part of the solution, Cortes said. The IRS’ CAA program has had a moratorium since August 2022, but will start accepting applications again this summer.

Because applicants have to submit their only form of identification to the IRS in the mail, Jiménez says, it makes people nervous, because documents can get lost. Certified Acceptance Agents can certify the ID and send the IRS a copy. 

Immigrants can also get ITIN numbers at an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC). In Pennsylvania, there are 15 TACs. An IRS spokesperson said the centers are usually staffed by two employees, and interpreting services “in more than 350 languages” are available via phone during face-to-face appointments with an IRS employee.

Reading, which is roughly 60% Latino, has one TAC location. The IRS website lists it as “temporarily unavailable.”  IRS spokesperson Luis García said that’s incorrect, and that the office is open. But he didn’t say how many appointments are available there per week or whether there is a Spanish speaker on staff.

The IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program offers free tax help to qualifying low-income families, as well as to taxpayers with limited English skills. In Pennsylvania, the VITA program partners with United Way, which coordinates services in different counties. United Way of York works with CASA, an immigration advocacy organization that helps low-income people and immigrants with language barriers file for taxes.

CASA’s and United Way’s VITA program requires clients to bring a Social Security or ITIN number. CASA volunteers also help clients apply for ITIN numbers, but – since they do not have Certified Acceptance Agents to certify a passport – volunteers have to send the passport in the mail. That can take up to two months.

CASA volunteers usually refer people who do not want to send their passport in the mail, or are close to the filing deadline, to Manos Unidas, a nonprofit in Adams County that offers tax services to immigrants and has a CAA on site. 

Nilsabel Cáceres, immigration integration coordinator for CASA Pennsylvania, says her clients will often opt for sending their passports in the mail and getting everything done in one place, instead of taking more time off work to drive 45 minutes to Gettysburg to get an ITIN number.

“Many of our clients work and if they don’t work that day, they don’t get paid,” Cáceres said.  

Sara Salazar,  integration immigration program manager for CASA Pennsylvania, says there are not many Spanish-speaking CAA tax specialists in York. When she does refer them to private services, she tries to make them aware of her VITA clients’ financial limitations.

“For every reference that we give, we always take time to vet what the person does, how much they are charging. There are definitely certified acceptance agents in York County – but are there any we could trust enough to refer to our clients, knowing with certainty that they are going to do an honest job and what the person is looking for? – No,” Salazar said.

United Way York is trying to raise funds to expand its VITA program and hoping to open more locations in the county.

Jackie Vimo, senior economic justice policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center, has been trying to raise awareness about the hurdles ITIN number tax filers face during tax season.

“My phone is ringing off the hook with calls from community organizations that know their communities, and they’re saying, we need help. There aren’t enough resources out there for immigrants,” Vimo said.

Vimo and more than 20 other immigrant services organizations sent a letter to U.S. treasury secretary Janet Yellen and IRS Acting Commissioner Douglas O’Donnell calling for a meeting to discuss barriers facing ITIN number applicants and tax filers.  

Jimenez’s team is small. Her three-year-old daughter Natasha is with her in the office. (Photo by Gabriela Martínez/WITF)

The groups are asking the IRS to create an “ITIN Task Force“ that includes members of immigrant communities, tax preparers that work with them, and policy analysts. They are also asking the IRS to start accepting ITIN number applications electronically and on a rolling basis, without requiring a completed tax return as well.

Vimo says the IRS could be doing more outreach in immigrant communities. One proposal is the creation of “taxmobiles” that provide services in immigrant communities.

“This is about getting people to pay taxes, right? The IRS has interest,” Vimo said. “Immigrants have a net positive effect on the economy, because they contribute to Medicare and social security to programs that they’re helping to keep afloat, but they’re not able to benefit from those programs.”

Jiménez says one of her main goals is educating her community about the benefits of being part of the formal economy and doing things, like filing taxes, the correct way. 

She routinely tells her clients that it helps them be in good standing before the government and will help them later on when they apply for a green card or citizenship. She tells them that having an ITIN number also allows people to start their own business, even if they are undocumented. Sometimes a client comes in for basic service, but she ends up giving them a crash course on how to build credit.

“In the end, when people talk about the Hispanic community in this country, I want them to talk about people who have financial literacy, who follow the rules and contribute to society,” Jiménez, who also noted that the clients she has lost are the ones who went to her looking for ways to skirt the system. 

“God blesses things that are done the right way, so we keep doing it the right way.”

This story is part of “More than Words,” a Report for America initiative that brought together newsrooms covering Latino communities in eight states to examine the impact of language barriers on the social, economic, and educational advancement of Latinos and the local efforts to close this gap.

This project is made possible by