Can the USCIS see my tax records?

I get emails from aliens (both legal and illegal) who have worked illegally (meaning that even if they were lawfully in the count they worked and got paid; this can happen when students or those on spouse visas without employment authorization engage in paid employment, even if it is part time).  The problem is much more widespread among those immigrants who are legally present and also have Social Security numbers.  Many of them take contract work for which they get paid.  Things can get even more complicated when these aliens either out of fear (remember that if someone has paid you for work, most likely they will inform the relevant authorities like IRS and the state government about it) or ignorance or a desire to cheat do not file a tax return reporting the income unlawfully earned.  So what will happen if they apply for another immigration benefit, like permanent resident or citizenship?

  1. While it is morally and legally wrong to engage in illegal activities, if there is no record, you will most likely get away with it, particularly if it is occasional and the amount of payment is small.  The United States authorities has other things to worry about and as a result we have over 12 million undocumented aliens working without authorization.  It does not mean that it is okay to do it just because you are less likely to get caught.  Also note that they would not be able to legalize their status unless their crime is explicitly forgiven in any comprehensive immigration reform.  Unfortunately, such pardons cover only undocumented aliens and if you broke the law while you were legally in the US, you will not be covered by this amnesty.
  2. Whether you are present in the United States lawfully or unlawfully, always report your income to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  Even if you are getting paid in cash with no paper trail and the employer is clearly breaking the law by hiring you, it is better to to file a tax return reporting the illegal income than not.  When you face a law enforcement agent, you will be much better off if you paid taxes on illegal income than not only working illegally but not paying Uncle Sam either.  If you do not have a SSN, while it is not meant for illegal workers, you can apply for an ITIN to report your income to the IRS.

  3. Always work with the hypothesis that the USCIS can find out anything and everything about you, particularly from a Federal or State agency.  The Agency also has the legal authority to subpoena any business or individual in the United States to provide information and documents on any alien (a business would most likely collaborate with the authorities rather than defend you and is probably going to blame you for misrepresentation and fraud).  USCIS cannot directly access the data held by IRS and Social Security Administration (SSA) but it has the legal authority to do so.  In other words, if USCIS has doubt that you have worked illegally or not paid taxes or you have hid that information from them (all serious crimes, for which a judge will not have a second thought issuing a warrant), it can find that relatively easily. 
  4. Always assume that when you apply for a visa or adjustment of status or naturalization, the USCIS knows everything about you.  Making an attempt to hide information or telling lies can jeopardize your application, and if you have misrepresented facts at any point, the USCIS can revoke your visa, green card, and even citizenship.  After that not only will you be deported, you will be imprisoned for years before that.
  5. If you have worked illegally or not paid taxes, you are much better off discussing this with your immigration and tax attorneys prior to filing a petition.  It is still easier to admit wrongdoing and taking corrective action (e.g. filing a tax return, amending past taxes, etc.) than hoping that you will not get caught.