Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic Helps Farmworkers Access Tax Justice 

Yovani Perez pays taxes on his painting and construction business

Yovani Perez, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, envisioned a future in the United States where he could openly contribute to the economy by starting his own construction and painting business and fulfilling his tax obligations. “To start this process means that they’re going to know you’re here, even though you’re not supposed to be,” Perez expressed, highlighting the fear many undocumented immigrants face when coming forward. 

Then Perez and his wife, Kayla Kelechian, who live in Syracuse, New York, heard about a Cornell program that helps people with low incomes file their taxes. “When I heard about it, the first thing I did was say, ‘Can we get it?’” says Kelechian, a U.S. citizen. “With Yovani being undocumented, it was a real pickle. He wanted to do things the right way. It was a huge relief.” 

Perez and Kelechian are two of the more than 200 clients who have benefited from the Low- Income Taxpayer Law and Accounting Practicum since it was launched in 2016. Cornell is the first university in the country to offer a program of this kind. 

The practicum was cofounded in 2016 by John McKinley, professor of practice in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and Beth Lyon, clinical professor and associate dean for experiential education and clinical program director at Cornell Law School, with support from the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement. 

The program’s clientele is diverse, with about 75 percent being farmworkers, most of whom are undocumented. It also extends its services to U.S. citizens who have been exonerated from wrongful convictions. Marquise Riley, codirector of the practicum, emphasized the obligation and desire among undocumented workers to comply with tax laws: “Many undocumented farmworkers don’t realize they are obligated to file taxes. But for those who know or find out that they do, they do want to meet that tax filing obligation.” 

The program not only helps its clients with tax preparation but also educates them on the importance of tax compliance and financial planning. For instance, one student secured a $20,000 refund for a client due to an IRS error, showcasing the significant impact the program can have on individuals’ lives. 

Perez’s journey through the program highlights the transformative power of taking such a step: “You can’t always live hidden. You have to have a life—not just [go from] work to home, home to work. You have to take children to the park. Undocumented workers have to do things just like every other human, and live life.” 

“We’re very proud of the practicum and the generations of students who have transformed lives and communities,” McKinley said. “Although accountants and lawyers work together extensively in all areas of American life, very few universities provide experiential opportunities for them to collaborate as students, learning to work across distinct training backgrounds, work modes and ethical obligations.”