The Magic Number

Illegal immigrants are using stolen identities to work. But whose are they?

A row of cubicles divides the room in half. Behind the front desk, a woman looks at Maria over the top of her reading glasses. "Do you need an IT number?" the woman asks.

"Does anyone, uh, you have here anyone who speaks Spanish?" Maria says, glancing at a Hispanic man sitting nearby in a security uniform.

The woman sighs. "Do you need an IT number?"

She is referring to an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which the IRS assigns to workers who are not eligible for a Social Security number for tax-processing purposes. Created in 1996, the ITIN was intended for use by resident and non-resident aliens working in the U.S. But because the numbers are issued regardless of legal status, many undocumented workers use them to file tax returns -- a contradiction that has always confused Maria.

"No, I need to see my" -- Maria thinks for the name -- "W-9 forms."

She means her W-2 forms, which employers complete for each worker to report wages and tax withholdings. A friend told Maria that the W-2 filed by Wendy's should have the store location, and maybe even a home address for the imposter. The IRS woman presses a button on a box attached to the desk. Out pops a slip of paper with a number. Maria takes it and looks for a place to sit among a dozen or so other assistance seekers. She finds a chair next to two elderly women gabbing in Russian. The electronic board mounted to the ceiling says they are now serving number 203. She looks at her slip: 507.

"Five-oh-seven?"

She wonders if she can get out of here before her son's school lets out at 2:30. She'd consider asking Luis, her boyfriend, to get Jesús, but he's has been holed up in her apartment since he injured his back hanging drywall. Fortunately, he was able to get workers' compensation, so he can help Maria out with the rent. But he's scheduled for surgery next month and is going to move out as soon as he recovers. They fight too much. Maria doesn't know why. Fight, fight, fight. It's always the little things. He will yell at Brian and Jesús to calm down -- ay, callate! -- and she will yell at Luis for yelling at her sons. It was the same way with Alonso, the boys' father, before they divorced three years ago. He lives back in Chihuahua and hasn't been north in years; paying a coyote to guide you across the border costs thousands of dollars that he doesn't have. Maria has heard that this year, passage is particularly difficult.

But Luis is here, she reminds herself, and he's pretty good with the boys; he's babysitting Brian right now. Still, her mind is firm: She wants a husband who helps her with the laundry or cleaning the house, maybe cooks once in a while, not just sits there. She can barely do it all, even with working only twenty hours a week. And she'd like to work more. Last year, she earned a nursing-aide certification from a local occupational school, but the great job promised by the school's counselors never materialized, because hospitals want aides with experience. So she's caught in the low-skilled worker's conundrum: She has no experience because she can't get experience because she has no experience.

An automated voice yaps from the speakers: "NOW SERVING NUMBER. FIVE. ZERO. TWO."

Maria realizes that the board, for some mysterious reason, rotates between high and low numbers. In the cubicle directly in front of her, a man dressed like a construction worker consults with an IRS clerk. From bits of the conversation, Maria learns that the Hispanic man is upset because someone else has been working under his name and Social Security number. But instead of disputing the bills for back taxes -- as have Maria's relatives who've gotten letters from the IRS about jobs they never worked -- this man apparently ignored them. Now the debt is fat with fines and very delinquent. The clerk is trying to be helpful, calmly explaining exactly why the IRS has put a levy on his bank accounts and weekly wages.

"But this is my money," the man says, his voice coming out in a strained shout. "I did not work there."

"Yes, sir, and we're going to get it sorted out," the clerk says over the sound of clacking computer keys.

Maria thinks she'd better get this thing fixed.

Number 507 is finally called. Maria goes to the assigned cubicle and finds the woman who'd been sitting behind the front desk.

"May I see an ID and have your Social Security number?"

Maria obliges, removing her wallet from her purse. She explains her situation. The IRS woman pulls up Maria's file for 2005 and begins listing off company names. When she gets to Wendy's, Maria says, "That's the one. Do you have the address or something?"

"Yes, I do," the woman replies. "But I can't give it to you."

"You're not allowed to give me the address?"

The woman doesn't answer. Instead, she exits the cubicle, then returns with a printout. She fishes a pair of scissors from her desk, cuts a three-inch long rectangle from the sheet, and hands the paper to Maria. It is the W-2 form filed by Wendy's, and it contains more information than the one that Maria got at the Human Services office. But the IRS woman has removed the addresses of the store and the employee -- Maria's entire reason for coming.

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