Several readers contacted The Fact Checker asking about this assertion by the former secretary of state, made as she discussed her policy goals for tackling illegal immigration. They wanted to know how this statement was possible.
Her statement is vague enough that one could interpret it as meaning that individual workers pay more in taxes than corporations, but Clinton’s campaign said that she was talking about undocumented workers as a group. Even so, is her claim possible?
The Clinton campaign initially pointed to an opinion column by Albor Ruiz in the Daily News, dated April 20, 2015, titled, “Corporate giants often get huge tax breaks, while poor, undocumented immigrants have paid billions in state taxes.”
We often warn that opinion columns are not necessarily as good a source of information as articles based on straight news reporting. Ruiz, for instance, relied on facts on corporate taxes from the Web site of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), which does not disclose sources for its assertions. Ruiz claimed that although “many of these corporate behemoths pay zero taxes, the eternally vilified undocumented immigrants in New York paid $1.1 billion in state taxes in 2012.”
The figure about taxes paid by undocumented workers comes from a report issued by the left-leaning Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy. We have no major issues with the methodology used in that report, except to note that it is a very broad estimate, based on assumptions about the number of immigrants, the average size of immigrant families, the range of income of immigrant workers, the number of homeowners and effective tax rates. A change in any one of those assumptions would alter the result.
For New York, for example, the report estimated that in 2012 there were 873,000 illegal immigrants, with an average family income of $32,600. Eighteen percent were estimated to be homeowners. They supposedly paid $566 million in sales and excise taxes, $186 million in state and local income taxes, and $342 million in property taxes, for a total of more than $1 billion. (Note that more than 50 percent of the figure comes from sales taxes, which every person and company pays just anytime something is purchased.)
But the most important aspect of the report is that it looks at state, local and property taxes paid by immigrants — not federal taxes. The Sanders Web site is about federal taxes. So Ruiz — and Clinton by extension — are mixing apples and oranges.
Thus, for the purposes of this fact check, we are not going delve deeply into the question of whether some big corporations do not pay much – or even zero — in federal taxes. The issue is very complicated and not very well reported in the U.S. media. (See, for example, how Fortune documented flaws in a New York Times report on General Electric.)
A company’s annual 10-K filing in March generally will only have estimated numbers, as the actual tax return generally is not filed until later in the year. Total tax numbers can be determined from looking at cash flow statements, but one generally cannot figure out what taxes are being paid. Yet it is silly to assert that these companies pay no taxes at all, because at the very least they are paying property taxes, sales taxes and employment taxes.
The only New York-based companies mentioned in Ruiz’s column were Verizon and Citicorp, so let’s take a closer look at them. Verizon, for instance, announces how much it expects to pay in such taxes. In 2012, it says it paid $1.7 billion in property and other taxes and $1.3 billion in employment taxes. The income tax bill in 2012 was relatively low — $351 million — but it jumped to $4 billion in 2014. That brought Verizon’s total tax bill above $7 billion in 2014.
As for Citicorp, spokeswoman Molly Millerwise Meiners said the company in 2012 paid nearly $1 billion in U.S. taxes (not including sales and excise taxes), including $300 million in state and local taxes, at least $110 million in property and use taxes, and $500 million in employment taxes. Sales taxes would bring the number even higher. Citi, of course, had enormous losses during the financial crisis which wiped out its federal income tax bill in 2012, but in 2014, she said, federal income taxes alone were about $1 billion.
(Update: A reader noted that while GE is headquartered in Connecticut, it is incorporated in New York. Spokesman Seth Martin says that in 2012 the company paid $3.2 billion in income taxes worldwide, including in the United States, and also paid more than $1 billion in other state, local and federal taxes.)
David Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative at Fiscal Policy Institute, which co-released the ITEP report, said that Clinton was trying to make the point that undocumented immigrants pay more in taxes than most people recognize. But he acknowledged that “if you really want to make a thorough comparison, you would have to include other taxes corporations may pay.”
Indeed, the accounting firm Ernst & Young estimates that that state and local business taxes totaled $643 billion in 2012. About one-third of the total stemmed from property taxes and one-fifth from sales taxes. There were also tens of billions paid in public utilities taxes, excise taxes, business license taxes, unemployment insurance taxes and other state business taxes.
Matt Gardner, executive director of ITEP and a co-author of the report, said it’s correct that many big companies pay no income taxes in certain years but it makes little sense to compare those numbers to a group of people. “If she means undocumented workers as a group, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison,” he said. “You could pick any large segment of the population and state, probably correctly, that that group pays more taxes than certain specific corporations. It’s just not obvious why that’s a very meaningful comparison to make.”
“The point she was making is that undocumented immigrants pay more in state and local taxes alone than some of our biggest companies pay in either state or federal corporate income tax,” said Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin. “That is a striking fact. And that’s why she raised it.”
The Pinocchio Test
Even if Clinton incorrectly stated her talking point, this is a tendentious argument that is probably made even less relevant by 2014 tax data. (Note how the taxes paid by Verizon and Citicorp increased as the economy began to pick up.) If she is only talking about state and local income taxes, that’s just $186 million, according to the ITEP estimate for New York. Verizon and Citicorp still exceed that number on state and local taxes alone.
Undocumented immigrants obviously pay a lot of taxes, especially sales taxes. Clinton would have an even stronger case to highlight the tax contribution of illegal immigrants if she mentioned that the Social Security actuary estimated that illegal immigrants paid $12 billion in Social Security taxes in 2010 alone, with little hope of ever receiving benefits. (They used false or duplicative Social Security numbers.) That’s even more than the ITEP estimate for state/local income taxes, sales taxes and property taxes paid by illegal immigrants across the nation.
But comparing the taxes of hundreds of thousands of people to the tax bill of one corporation is a stretch and fairly misleading. Even the companies that pay little or no federal income taxes end up paying lots of other taxes. So it’s a nonsense comparison.
We wavered between Three and Four Pinocchios, but ultimately settled on Four. As a former senator, Clinton should know better.
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