Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has talked … and talked … and talked about introducing a bill that would provide legal status to, as he says, blameless undocumented individuals who were brought to the United States as children. We have welcomed the Florida senator’s entry into this important discussion and have been anxious to see his bill and the strong Republican support that he has promised. As described in his numerous interviews about the subject, it should be an easy bill to write since it is structurally so similar to the DREAM Act, a bill first introduced 10 years ago that would provide undocumented youth an opportunity to earn citizenship. And yet, two months later, there is still no bill and no evidence of political support from his Republican colleagues.
So it was quite the surprise to immigration advocates when the bill he actually introduced this week was not his promised DREAM-like proposal, but rather a bill that attacks “blameless” low-income American children. His bill, which is designed to restrict eligibility for the additional child tax credit, the refundable portion of the federal child tax credit, landed like a heavyweight’s blow to the chin of low-income immigrant families.
In his press release about the bill, Sen. Rubio claims that his proposal will end a “scam that costs American taxpayers $4.2 billion” by blocking refundable credits from going to U.S.-citizen or legally resident children who have an undocumented parent provider. But the child tax credit was enacted in 1998 without regard to the immigration status of the parents for a good reason.
Background on the child tax credit
As the name suggests, this credit was not designed out of concern for low-income parents; it was enacted to help keep America’s children from falling in to poverty. In fact in 2009 the child tax credit and its refundable companion prevented 1.3 million American children from falling in to poverty. This is why Congress only requires the Internal Revenue Service to ensure that the child being claimed is a U.S. citizen or U.S. resident alien.
Immigrant parents of American-born children can claim the child tax credit using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, which enables immigrants who are not eligible for Social Security numbers to file and pay federal taxes. In practice, this means that undocumented workers whose wages are taxed and who file federal income tax returns are eligible to claim the credit on behalf of their U.S.-citizen children.
Take, for example, a single mother with two children, working full time for minimum wage with a yearly income of $15,000. Federal, state, and local payroll taxes are withheld from her paychecks, but her income is too low to owe federal income tax. (Of course, filers who are not liable for federal income tax have usually paid other federal taxes, such as Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, as well as state and local taxes.) The additional child tax credit, however, makes her eligible for a $1,800 refund to help defray the costs of raising her two American children.
If this woman were an undocumented worker whose children were U.S. citizens, when she filed her taxes using an ITIN, she would be eligible to receive this refund under current law. According to a report by the Treasury Department’s inspector general, in 2010 there were about 2 million taxpayers like this woman who filed with ITINs and claimed a refund. That means millions of American children rely on these parents’ refunds to put food on the table, buy school books and clothes, and shelter them.
The consequences of restricting the child tax credit
The average household income for ITIN filers claiming additional child tax credit refunds in 2010 was about $21,240. This amount is less than half the 2010 median household income in the United States and would mean that a family of four with two children was living below the poverty line. Latino children are more likely to live in poverty than any other racial or ethnic group, and more than half of the 6.1 million Latino children in poverty are the U.S.-born children of immigrants.
That means there are more than 2 million families threatened by Sen. Rubio’s bill—hard-working families with blameless children who are U.S. citizens. As many as 4 million of these American children already living on the economic margin could be harmed by this tax increase. At a time when our nation has the largest number of people living in poverty since data was first collected 52 years ago after the deepest recession since the 1930s, tipping the scales against low-income children is immoral and economically self-defeating.
The $4.2 billion in refundable credits that were issued in 2010 to more than 2 million ITIN filers represented about 15 percent of the total child tax credit refunds paid. Those same ITIN filers, however, also contributed more than $7 billion in federal taxes toward Medicare and Social Security, programs from which they will never recoup benefits. In other words, morality aside, the U.S. Treasury and American taxpayers still come out ahead by granting child tax credits to low-income families with an undocumented tax filer.
It all adds up to hypocrisy
Sen. Rubio’s bill would shift the focus of the child tax credit away from protecting blameless kids. The goal of punishing parents for their lack of legal immigration status would trump the objective of protecting U.S.-citizen kids who live in low-income households.
There is no way Sen. Rubio can logically square this proposal that puts low-income U.S.-citizen children in the crosshairs with his professed desire to provide “humanitarian” relief to “blameless” undocumented youth. This attack on the child tax credit appears to be a calculated attempt by Sen. Rubio to demonstrate his commitment to “legality” and his willingness to crack down on “illegal immigrants.” But in his zeal to burnish his hardline bona fides with conservatives, he would actually take food off the tables of low-income U.S.-citizen kids who are, in every sense of the word, blameless.
Even using a political calculator, adding Sen. Rubio’s two proposals together equals hypocrisy.
Marshall Fitz is the Director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.
 The Responsible Child Tax Credit Eligibility Verification Act of 2012 (S. 3083).