Alondra Velasco is part of the underground economy, but she's a legitimate taxpayer in the eyes of Uncle Sam.

The 22-year-old Rialto resident works at a Mexican restaurant. She gets paid in cash because she's in the country illegally and doesn't have a Social Security number.

Like millions of Americans, Velasco will file a tax return this year, reporting her income and earnings to the Internal Revenue Service.

"Until this year, I didn't know you're supposed to file your taxes if you receive cash money," said Velasco, a native of Mexico who has lived in the United States for 11 years.

As Tax Day approaches, more and more illegal immigrants are coming out of the shadows and filing tax returns.

Velasco applied for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), a tool used by the IRS to help people pay taxes even if they don't have a Social Security number.

The ITIN was created by the IRS in 1996. It is issued regardless of immigration status because legal and illegal immigrants may have filing or reporting requirements under the tax code.

By filing tax returns, undocumented workers want to show the government they are hardworking contributors to society who are worthy of legal residency and citizenship if immigration reform becomes a reality.

Velasco earned a little less than $5,000 at her part-time restaurant job last year. She owes $661 in taxes. Even though she doesn't pay income tax, Velasco is required to pay social security tax because she is paid in cash and is considered self-employed.

"I have a clean background and I've never been in trouble," said Velasco, who also takes classes at San Bernardino Valley College four days a week. "I follow the rules. I want to be a good example."

Over the past decade, the IRS has issued nearly 14 million ITINs nationwide.

Many people who use ITINs are undocumented workers, but others need them as well.

Foreign-born students and investors in U.S. businesses also may not be eligible for Social Security numbers, but they are required to pay taxes if they earn income.

The IRS doesn't keep tabs on whether an ITIN applicant is in the country legally, said spokesman Raphael Tulino.

The taxpayer identification number does not entitle filers to Social Security benefits and does not change their immigration status or their right to work in the United States.

"The purpose of the ITIN is to give folks who have a tax purpose a number to file a tax return if they are not eligible to get a Social Security number," Tulino said. "The purpose of that number is for federal tax purposes and that's it."

Nestor Aparicio, a registered tax preparer in San Bernardino, said that "99 percent" of the people who who use ITINs to file tax returns are illegal immigrants.

Aparicio said many undocumented workers are reluctant to report their income to the IRS because they think their personal information might be shared with immigration authorities.

He said the belief persists even though Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code states that the IRS is not authorized to release taxpayer information to other government agencies.

"For every person that does it, there's 20 that don't because they are afraid that someone is going to come looking for them because they're working without documents," said Aparicio, the office manager for Libreria del Pueblo, a San Bernardino nonprofit that provides legal, tax and immigration-related services.

But experts say the fear may be subsiding.

The annual number of ITINs issued by the IRS has nearly tripled over the past decade, from 615,414 in 1999 to 1,837,583 in 2009.

"I think it's more accessible to people," said Michele Waslin, senior policy analyst at the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C. "It's also a possibility that more immigrants are getting them because there have been immigration reform bills in the past couple of years. In anticipation of a legalization program, people understand they need to pay their taxes and get their paperwork in order."

Aparicio said that paying taxes is a good idea for illegal immigrants.

"It's recommended for them because it establishes them as good productive citizens," he said. 

Critics say the ITIN gives quasi-legal status to people in the country illegally.

"It's a tacit acknowledgment on the part of the government that you have all these people working here illegally and the government is doing nothing about it," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C.

"This is especially concerning given the high levels of unemployment we're now experiencing," he said.

Maria Galicia, a 22-year-old illegal immigrant who lives in Colton, has a part-time job at a child care center. She also takes classes at Valley College in the hopes of transferring to Cal State San Bernardino and earning a nursing degree.

Galicia said she is working to help her parents pay the rent because her dad is unemployed.

Because she is paid in cash, Galicia has to file as a self-employed person. She earned about $8,500 in income last year and owes about $1,200 in social security taxes.

But Galicia isn't complaining about paying taxes.

"It's just the right thing to do," she said.


How to apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN):

* Use the latest revision of Form W-7, Application for IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.

* Attach a valid federal income tax return, and include original, notarized or certified proof of identity documents.

* Send the tax return, Form W-7 and proof of identity documents to: Internal Revenue Service, Austin Service Center, ITIN Operation, P.O. Box 149342, Austin, Texas 78714-9342.

* For help with an ITIN application, call the IRS toll-free at 1-800-829-1040.