In a Unique Collaboration with Cornell, Prof. Smith Provides Remote Tax Assistance to Migrant Farm Workers
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many things about the United States, not least of which is the frayed condition of its societal safety nets. But a collaboration between the University of Minnesota Law School and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., is putting at ease some worries for farm workers in upstate New York.
Minnesota Law tax professor Caleb Smith has teamed up with Cornell to provide tax counseling – mostly remotely – for farm workers near Syracuse, N.Y. Smith, the director of Minnesota Law’s Ronald M. Mankoff Tax Clinic, has worked with Cornell in the past, and along the line the idea arose that Cornell’s program to aid low-income farm workers might be a good basis for a collaboration.
The Cornell program, called Interdisciplinary Tax Services for Low-Income Immigrants, aims to train accounting and law students to assist low-income immigrant taxpayers in their taxation and legal needs, including helping them file returns. The relatively new program also needs tax law experts, such as Smith, to provide support and direct consulting services.
The farm workers – many of whom are Mexican immigrants – generally have little idea about their basic tax obligations, including how to file a tax return. Smith counsels the workers about how to navigate the tax laws to which they’re subject.
Over a recent weekend, Smith was able to help out three low-income farm workers via video-calling software such as Zoom and WhatsApp.
Smith ultimately hopes to incorporate Minnesota Law students into the program. In fact, two of his students were set to accompany him on spring break service trip to Ithaca last month, but the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, necessitating the cancellation of the trip. He updates the students on the remote work he is doing to keep them engaged.
Smith believes participating in the programs like the Cornell one provides the students with tangible benefits, including practical experience and exposure to the needs of vulnerable populations.
Smith has already found the Cornell collaboration fruitful in a couple of ways. “It helps people in critical need, and also helps build a relationship with a different law school with different expertise,” he says.
–By Dan Heilman, a St. Paul-based writer