The Oct. 15 filing deadline for extension tax returns just passed. Yet, many immigrants struggle to navigate the complex tax filing process in the U.S. because of a language barrier, lack of information, or inability to navigate the system.
Noticing these hardships, a few local teens have come together to solve this problem, founding a nonprofit organization called The Dreamers’ Tax Project with a mission to help undocumented immigrants file their taxes.
“One family friend of mine didn’t have proof of paying taxes, and they didn’t even realize that was a thing because they don’t speak English as their first language,” said Lora Kwon, the founder of The Dreamers’ Tax Project.
As a 17-year-old junior at Redmond High School, Kwon grew up in a family with an accounting business, so she started learning the intricacies of accounting and taxes from her family members at a young age. Kwon was inspired to start this nonprofit to help undocumented immigrants, especially those who have low income and issues with the English language, to pay their taxes and to obtain benefits available only to taxpayers such as COVID-19 stimulus checks and the child tax credit.
She reached out to her junior friends from Redmond High — Isha Mehta and Akshita Kikkuru — to join this effort. All three team members are second-generation immigrants.
The Dreamers’ Tax Project helps clients from different sources. Often, the clients were referred to the team by another nonprofit organization that has already built trustworthy relationships with undocumented immigrants. However, gaining trust from this unique clientele has been a challenge.
“They [undocumented immigrants] are afraid to readily share their information to people that they don’t even know,” said Mehta, who runs marketing for the nonprofit.
When their clients come to them for help, the team would explain every step they are taking and why they need certain personal information.
“Some clients request that we send articles and parts of government docs for reassurance that they are 100% on the right track,” Kwon said.
By putting in the effort to realize their clients’ concerns and fulfill clients’ needs, the team was able to understand the nuances of their challenges and worked towards building and strengthening trust.
“Now we’re more understanding of okay, these people live in a state of fear, a lot of their times they don’t know who to trust, they don’t know the information they’re allowed to get,” said Kikkuru, who helps with client tax returns and marketing.
They have partnered with well-respected and well-established organizations such as Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center (KIAC), Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN), Eastside For All, and Bellevue YMCA to reach their clientele.
Since many undocumented immigrants lack access to the Internet, Kwon, Mehta and Kikkuru contact clients mainly through phone calls. Their service includes helping clients fill out W-7 forms to get a taxpayer identification number, finding and transporting clients to IRS locations nearby, e-filing taxes, and sending receipts.
Kwon said this work has made her realize that tax jargon and lengthy IRS forms create immense difficulty for immigrants who do not speak English, making it hard for them to fill out the information correctly on their own.
“If you go on the IRS, there’s a 20-page PDF about how to fill out the tax form. Even though I know all the tax terminology, I was still so confused at first,” Kwon said. “And the government expects someone who’s low income, maybe not as well-educated, whose English isn’t their first language to be able to understand.”
Currently, the team provides translation service for Spanish, Farsi, Korean and Telugu. The team gets help from two Spanish translators as most of their clients are fluent in Spanish, and the three teens cover Korean, Farsi and Telugu themselves.
They are recruiting more translators who can speak other languages.
The Dreamers’ Tax Project has already helped 30 to 50 clients, and the founding trio plan to continue providing free tax services to anyone who needs help.
Mehta believes the U.S. tax system could be improved by providing free or low-cost services to help undocumented immigrants.
“If they were to open specific branches that are more focused on taxes for immigrants, I think that would be a really great start to helping more people gain knowledge on how to pay their taxes,” Mehta said.
The Dreamers’ Tax Project is currently in need of funds for transportation and website maintenance. To donate, please go to their website.