International students face higher taxes from Trump administration


Chengjie Xi ’21, an international student at work in the Grill, will be one of many Grinnellian’s facing increased taxes under the Republican tax bill. Photo by Reina Shahi

By Eva Hill

Late last month, students who qualify as nonresidents of the United States received an email informing them of a change to United States tax law that may have an effect on their income. Prior to this year, the email explained, nonresident taxpayers could claim a personal exemption of up to $4,050, which would not be taxed.

Under the new legislation, a Republican-led tax reform bill that went into effect in December of 2017, nonresidents cannot claim any tax-exempt income.

Not all students who qualify as nonresidents for tax purposes will be affected by the change; certain countries have tax treaties with the United States which specify different amounts of income that can be claimed as tax-exempt. If a student is from one of these countries, they may only have to pay taxes for earnings over the amount specified.

The email also explained that while in the past nonresident students may have received tax refunds after filing, some of those same students may now have to pay additional taxes due to the new law. With the new legislation in place, nonresident student workers will pay around 10 percent of their income in taxes.

Karen Edwards, associate dean and director of International Student Affairs at the College, sent the email to students and is working with her office to plan next steps. Edwards said that although not all nonresident students will be affected by the law, she felt that it was important to let them know that there was a possibility that they would be.

She explained that although the Office of International Student Affairs can offer support to nonresident students who want to make sure they are compliant with U.S. tax law, there are limits to what kinds of help the office itself can give.

“It’s such a complex area; we are constantly weighing the fact that we can’t give specific individual tax advice with the reality that we want to help students understand their compliance [responsibilities in terms of tax laws and immigration regulations] … When students arrive and … fill out their initial tax [paperwork], we help facilitate to make sure that gets done [in collaboration with the student payroll office].”

Sam Xu ’20, an international student and executive board member at large for the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, explained that while the union is currently dealing with National Labor Review Board proceedings and does not have any concrete plans for specific support regarding this law, they always have a goal to be supportive of student workers from all backgrounds.

“Many of our members are international students and two of our executive board members are international students,” said Xu. “We will certainly do what we can to advocate for their socioeconomic interests.”

Cat Dang Ton ’22 is a nonresident student who works on campus, finds that as a first-year at Grinnell, the complicated and bureaucratic nature of U.S. tax law can be confusing. The first she had heard of the legislation was through the email. She explained that after receiving a paycheck with a significant tax deduction, she’d looked to College offices for clarification.

“I went to ask OISA and someone from the student payroll department, and they sent me a file of how taxes are calculated, and the highest rate was for [nonresident] students.” She expressed that the tax change contributes to a feeling that the current federal administration does not have the interests of nonresident workers in mind.

For specific help and advice as well as yearly filing assistance, Edwards explained, the College provides free access to Glacier Tax Prep, an online income tax filing tool that helps guide nonresident students through the process. She said that the evolution of services such as the tax program has assisted the College in supporting student needs in this area.

“Tax law in the U.S. is incredibly complicated, and in my career I’ve seen that really shift, from years ago, when campuses did far more hands-on [support], to stepping back and realizing that we have to lean on tax attorneys and [other] qualified people to be giving that advice.”