Bush Plan: Social Security for 'Legalized' Illegal Aliens

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:31 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Illegal aliens who work under borrowed, stolen or fraudulent Social Security numbers could collect retirement benefits based on their illegal earnings as the result of a Bush administration plan. Critics charge the federal government has grossly underestimated the cost of the proposal, which they believe could be billions of dollars per year.

Congress is expected to vote on some combination of proposed changes to immigration laws as early as next week, according to sources working with the House Homeland Security and Judiciary committees. While members have not been able to reach agreement on the details of a temporary or "guest worker" program advocated by President Bush, the White House might use the legislative opportunity to seek approval for an International Social Security Agreement with Mexico, something it has wanted for more than two years.

Mark Kirkorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told Cybercast News Service that the arrangements, usually called "totalization agreements," with industrialized countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and even France are beneficial. But those benefits, he argued, would not come from an agreement with Mexico.

"The point to a totalization agreement is for two advanced countries that occasionally send corporate transferees from one country to the next for a two or three year stint to be able to reconcile their respective retirement systems," Kirkorian said. "It's not for a third world country that sends millions of peasants into a developed country to take advantage of; there's a complete mismatch, an imbalance."

Kirkorian points out a number of differences between the U.S. and Mexican Social Security systems including:

    Workers are vested in the U.S. system in 10 years versus 24 years in Mexico;
    The U.S. pays greater benefits to lower income workers whereas Mexico pays out only the premiums paid in, plus accrued interest; and
    Most Mexican workers avoid their country's Social Security system by working in the "underground economy," while most U.S. workers have Social Security taxes automatically collected from their wages.

The U.S. has entered into totalization agreements with 20 countries since 1978. The Social Security Administration (SSA) describes the arrangements on its website:

"[These] agreements have two main purposes. First, they eliminate dual Social Security taxation -- the situation that occurs when a worker from one country works in another country and is required to pay Social Security taxes to both countries on the same earnings," the SSA site explains. "Second, the agreements help fill gaps in benefit protection for workers who have divided their careers between the United States and another country."

Congress does not have to give approval for the totalization agreements, but lawmakers are given the opportunity to vote them down. SSA Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart explained the benefits of totalization for U.S. employers and employees during her Sept. 11, 2003 testimony to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims.

"Without totalization the combined Social Security tax rate that U.S. employers and employees working in foreign countries must pay often approaches 40 percent or more of total payroll," Barnhart testified.

In March of 2003, the SSA's Office of the Chief Actuary estimated that a totalization agreement with Mexico would cost the U.S. $78 million in the first year, growing to $650 million (in constant 2002 dollars) by 2050. That determination assumed that the initial number of newly eligible Mexican recipients would be equal to the 50,000 beneficiaries then living in Mexico, and that the eligible number would grow to only 300,000 over the next 48 years.

But the agency now known as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) GAO report disputed that estimate.

"[T]his proxy figure does not directly consider the estimated millions of current and former unauthorized workers and family members from Mexico and appears small in comparison with those estimates," the GAO determined. "The estimate also inherently assumes that the behavior of Mexican citizens would not change and does not recognize that an agreement could create an additional incentive for unauthorized workers to enter the United States to work and maintain documentation to claim their earnings under a false identity."

Kirkorian believes those would be the unintended consequences of the president's proposed "guest worker" program.

"If the president gets his way and [those illegal aliens are] legalized, and he submits this totalization agreement to Congress," Kirkorian warned, "then all of the illegal aliens who get this 'amnesty' that he wants, get to count all of their Social Security payments when they were illegal toward their eventual retirement."

Barnhart told the congressional subcommittee that such an outcome could not happen.

"As is the case with our existing agreements, a totalization agreement with Mexico would not alter current law on this issue," Barnhart testified. "Totalization agreements do not have any effect on the prohibition against payment of benefits to illegal aliens in the United States."

But if Congress approves the president's "guest worker" plan, the "adjusted" status of previously illegal employees would mean that they would no longer be excluded from eligibility for Social Security payments.

"What they want is for illegal aliens who 'adjust' to some kind of legal status to be able to count their illegal work toward Social Security," Kirkorian said. "That's not up for contention, that's just a fact. The Social Security Administration negotiated the agreement, already, with Mexico."

A March 2003 report by the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General (SSA-OIG) validates Kirkorian's concern.

"SSA's practice allows non-citizens to work illegally in the U.S. economy for a number of years, eventually acquire a valid SSN and have these earnings posted to their valid SSNs, and then receive [Social Security] benefits as a result of those earnings," the inspector general reported. "SSA does not consider the work-authorization status of the individual when they earned the wages; it only considers whether the individual can prove he or she paid Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) taxes as part of this work."

Data from the 2000 Census indicate that 9.1 million Mexican citizens are living in the United States, 4.8 million of them illegally. The SSA-OIG report speculated about the impact that those illegal aliens could have if they became eligible for U.S. Social Security benefits.

"If these Mexican non-citizens are also working in the United States illegally, and an amnesty and/or totalization agreement occurs," the report warned, "SSA potentially may need to reinstate a large volume of [Social Security taxes paid under false or fraudulent account numbers] based on earlier unauthorized work."

Marti Dinerstein, president of Immigration Matters, also criticized the SSA in a September 2004 report entitled "Social Security 'Totalization' - Examining a Lopsided Agreement with Mexico," for using Canada as the model for its Mexican totalization cost estimates.

"The estimated number of Canadians living in the United States is 820,000," Dinerstein wrote. "Given the fact that a totalization agreement would cover not just Mexican workers but also their spouses and dependents, it is highly likely that over time, potentially millions of people would receive U.S. Social Security benefits and the cost would be in the billions of dollars."

"It's pretty ludicrous, frankly," Kirkorian concluded. "Mexico is just not the kind of country that you should be having this kind of agreement with."

The White House did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

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