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April 15 Anxiety With Twist

Some Immigrants Desperate for Help

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page B01

The clock was ticking toward April 15, and Luis Angel was panicking. The Salvadoran bartender still hadn't gotten a W-2 form from a restaurant where he worked last year, and he wasn't sure what to do.

"Nobody wanted to help me," he said yesterday, explaining that the restaurant had gone out of business.

Luis Angel waits to meet with a tax adviser at CentroNia, one of the area groups helping immigrants with their taxes. (Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

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After asking around, Angel was referred to a free Spanish-language tax clinic at CentroNia, a service agency in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood. At 2 p.m. yesterday, he was filling out a form for a tax counselor, relieved to find assistance.

"I was worried. I've never failed to pay [taxes]," said Angel, 26, of Lanham, who came from El Salvador six years ago.

If tax time brings many Americans an annual wave of frustration, it is perhaps especially stressful for low-income immigrants. They are hardly alone, of course, in finding tax forms baffling. But many immigrants are unfamiliar with the U.S. legal system. Some receive bad advice from cheap, poorly trained tax preparers, immigrant advocates say. And some have employers who send their W-2 pay forms late -- or not at all.

Taxes "scare Americans. You can understand why someone new would be overwhelmed," said Patricia Risinger, manager of Tess Community Service Center, a Montgomery County service agency that has run a tax assistance clinic in recent months for low-income residents, including many immigrants.

Several groups in the Washington area offered tax preparation aid this year in a variety of languages, from Spanish to Cantonese. The clinics provided free or low-cost service and often enabled immigrants to receive benefits they were unaware of, advocates say. In particular, numerous immigrants qualify for the earned-income tax credit, a special break for the working poor that can result in a significant refund.

"We have found cases who had never applied for that . . . when they found out [they qualified], they were so happy, they cried," said Thanh Nguyen, director of Boat People SOS, which provided tax assistance to Vietnamese immigrants in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

While immigrants were still lining up to get help yesterday, many groups offering assistance said they weren't overwhelmed. Many immigrants had filed early, expecting they would receive a refund, they said.

"The later they come, the more they owe," Risinger said.

The late arrivals also included problem cases -- such as immigrants who had taken their tax forms to low-cost preparers and received dubious advice.

Enrique Torrijo, who oversees the tax clinic at CentroNia, said immigrants are sometimes scammed by such preparers. In other cases, immigrants seek out people who will help them inflate their refunds, unaware of the consequences, he said.

Torrijo recalled looking at the tax returns of a single man who had sought to boost his refund one year by falsely claiming that he had a wife and daughter. "The next year he had two sons -- no wife, no daughter," he said. "Obviously we could not do that here."

But those who assist immigrants say many are eager to pay their taxes -- even those working here illegally. They know that if they cheat, they could jeopardize any chance they may have to become U.S. citizens, the program directors say.

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