SAN FRANCISCO - When Maulit Shelat heard about the Bush administration's plan to pump up the economy by sending out stimulus checks, he sat down with his wife and drew up a list of priorities: first up, remodeling the bathroom.
But Shelat is married to a foreigner who still hasn't completed the often years-long process that allows her to apply for a Social Security number. Her not having that number makes even him ineligible for the tax rebate checks that started going out last week, because the couple filed jointly.
He is among what is thought to be hundreds of thousands of taxpayers - from legal immigrants to soldiers based abroad - who won't get a share of the stimulus package because of a provision aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from getting rebates.
"I would have fed this economy as well," said Shelat, a chemical engineer living with his wife and two children in the Buffalo area. "We live within this economy, work, pay taxes, do everything by the book. Whatever the reasons for giving this economic stimulus package, they apply to us as well."
When lawmakers decided to send out the checks, ranging from $300 to $600 per adult taxpayer, plus another $300 for each child, they formulated it so only taxpayers who have Social Security numbers would qualify.
The rule unintentionally snares many taxpayers who would have qualified for the bonus but for having filed jointly with a spouse whose immigration status doesn't allow a Social Security number. Among them are some troops stationed overseas who may have married a foreigner.
"An American soldier who has married someone from another country and is waiting for [an immigration] petition to get approved - that soldier not getting that check is stupid," said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, whose district includes Silicon Valley, home of many high-tech workers who fell through the rebate cracks.
It's not clear how many of the 288,000 members of the armed forces abroad married foreigners. But officials in overseas bases say they can't do anything about the Internal Revenue Service policy.
"The US military doesn't have any input in IRS practices and procedures," said Air Force Major Pamela Cook, with the US European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. "It's true that service members and anybody who is married to someone without a Social Security number is affected. But it's not in our lane to talk."
There are also an estimated 1 million legal residents - immigrants with green cards - who are waiting for their spouses' paperwork to be processed, according to Paul Donnelly of Reform the Rebate, a group trying to push Congress to change the rule.
The IRS doesn't keep numbers of how many of that group are cut out of the rebate because they filed jointly.
Members of the Federation for American Immigration Reform lobbied against a version of the bill that didn't require a Social Security number for the rebate, worried about the prospect of illegal immigrants receiving checks. Spokesman Ira Mehlman said the exclusion of legal immigrants and Americans married to noncitizens was an unintended consequence.
"If you're serving abroad and haven't been able to file the paperwork, they should make an exception," he said. "If one spouse is a citizen, is here legally and is filing, they should probably be entitled."