Op-ed: Don’t leave international students guessing on Tax Day

About a month before Tax Day last year, I received an email from the Office of International Student Affairs. “DO NOT REPLY TO THIS EMAIL” was the first line, highlighted in bright yellow. A short paragraph at the end of the email stated that students should not contact OISA for tax-filing information. Instead, they could refer to a two-page document attached to the email, which provided links to the Internal Revenue Service website that detailed how to file federal taxes, linked to the Massachusetts government website for state taxes, and provided addresses to free tax legal clinics.

Upon my arrival to the States, I knew nothing about the different tax forms for federal and state taxes, or that international students who have no income while in college still have to fill out form 8843, an informational statement required by the government for certain nonresident “aliens.” Most foreign students like me come to the U.S. with no prior experience reporting taxes.

Filing taxes is an obligation and an absolute requirement for international students if they plan to stay in the U.S. and keep their student visa, known as an F-1 visa. If students with an F-1 visa don’t file their tax returns, they could get their visa revoked, which could mean a permanent bar from the country or the inability to receive a U.S. visa for years. International students could also encounter difficulties when applying for a green card, a permit allowing a non-U.S. citizen to live and work permanently in the country, since an F-1 visa only allows students to work in on-campus jobs. Moreover, interest and penalties accrue if an international student does not file their taxes on time.

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With all of these risks surrounding taxes, I feel that Emerson does not provide enough help and services for international students filing their taxes.

Because OISA only sends out this single email each year to international students, some of my friends still don’t see the importance and necessity in reporting taxes, so they disregard this email. For those with no prior knowledge of the unique tax system in the U.S., education on tax responsibility and basic knowledge of the different forms should be a requirement for them, and the school should help them to better understand. If Emerson aims to increase its number of international students, the college needs to better accommodate critical issues like taxes for those students.

This year, Emerson’s tax information email explained why OISA cannot provide students with help when filing taxes. “Tax advising is a complex area of U.S. law separate from immigration law,” the email read. “As such, Emerson College and the Office of International Student Affairs are not authorized to provide direct advising on any individual tax questions.”

Emerson’s tax information email this year also included more resources to IRS websites and legal tax offices. But I still found it hard to understand the process based on the email alone.

I began working at the front desk of the journalism department this year, so I now have more forms to fill out to file my taxes correctly due to my taxable income. I printed out all of the forms and the corresponding instructions by following the instructions provided by OISA in an email from early February, but I didn’t understand half the information in the forms. I didn’t know what deductibles and taxable refunds were, plus the instructions themselves spanned 25 pages.

In China, my home country, there are no tax forms to fill out for us to report taxes. Most companies collect information from their employees, calculate their taxation, and deduct taxes directly from paychecks. Here the government deducts taxes from people’s income based on their general tax bracket, and then receive returns based on the specific information they filed about their personal income. But in China, the specific amount is already deducted to begin with.

The Emerson website also provides very few resources concerning tax filing information. I believe it’s important to send out a taxation reminder and a guide to international students well before Tax Day—as the college does—but it’s also equally important to have such detailed information readily available online year-round.

The Boston University website includes a detailed tab called U.S. Tax Information, under the Employment and Internships webpage. The page contains almost all of the resources one would need for tax reporting and is available year-round. Although OISA also provides a tax-filing webpage for international students, it includes no direct links to the IRS or websites directing students to online resources, and only lists physical places to get tax forms, even though students can locate all of the forms online.

This year, under the advice of my boss at the journalism department, I filed my taxes online using a free program called H&R Block. I received an email weeks later saying both of my federal and Massachusetts returns are being accepted. However, I still don’t feel comfortable because the website autofills the necessary tax forms after I report my information, and I can’t tell which forms are actually getting sent to the IRS. I also still have questions and doubts about how taxation really works, despite doing a lot of research on my own. Without the proper information on the school website, students must seek help online or schedule an appointment with legal offices off campus, which inconveniences students and consumes their time. But sometimes it’s hard to find reliable information, since official explanations on the IRS website are full of jargon and other websites lack legitimacy.

I know OISA staff members try their best to support international students through this difficult process, considering their office is based on immigration-advising. However, as more international students attend Emerson, the school must find better ways to help them understand taxes. Failing to fulfill tax obligations may cause serious consequences. And under the current political environment that makes it difficult to obtain a U.S. visa, the school should do everything it can to prevent students from encountering bigger problems with the U.S. government once they’re here.

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