Critics say one federal agency is accommodating lawbreakers that another agency is trying ferret out.
It's been just an hour, but tax counselors at a recent IRS seminar at an immigrant community center have already seen 100 people and are facing an overflow crowd in the waiting room hoping for tax help.
These people aren't in a quandary over new tax laws or changes to the code. These are illegal immigrants who up until today have been using false social security numbers to work in the United States. Immigrants like them are flocking in record numbers to IRS offices and seminars such as this one to learn how to become legal US taxpayers.
The IRS has been quietly supporting this activity since 1996 when it created an individual taxpayer identification number designed for anyone who doesn't have a social security number.
This program has gained momentum as immigrants become aware of this option and more fearless about their position in the US workforce.
It's an example of the tension over the growing acceptance of illegal immigrants in this country. While US Border Patrol agents play cat-and-mouse with those trying to enter the US illegally, other federal agencies are creating ways to accomodate the 7 million to 8 million illegal immigrants who are already here.
SOME say the federal government's acceptance of this new tax ID number as well its myriad other immigrant services, from education to health to housing is a clear sign that the country has reached a certain comfortable level with illegal immigration from Latin America.
Others remain convinced that decisionmakers are going too far, undercutting law-and-order efforts by not enforcing immigration laws.
The IRS simply says it's smart business. Its job is to collect taxes from those who work, not determine who is eligible to work. To do that job, officials say, they needed to find a way to cut down on fraud.
"We had to do something," says Leandro Leon, education and communication director in the Houston IRS office. "These undocumented aliens were working here, using bogus Social Security numbers, and not reporting their income."
When the ID was first announced, Mr. Leon had a trickle of immigrants come to his office. But as word spread, and with assurances given that no immigrants' information will be shared with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Mr. Leon started having to set up seminars to handle as many as 500 immigrants a night.