The Trump Presidential campaign rolled out its first major television ad last week, aimed at voters in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. For Social Security experts and advocates, it wasn't worth waiting for.
"In Hillary Clinton's America, the system stays rigged against Americans," the ad declares. "Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay, collecting Social Security benefits, skipping the line."
Bluntly speaking, these statements about Social Security are untrue. Here are the facts:
1. Unauthorized workers are not permitted to collect Social Security benefits.
2. No one can collect Social Security benefits he or she didn't earn from working in Social Security-covered employment.
3. There's no mechanism for anyone to "skip the line," whatever that means.
All Social Security benefits are based on one's work history. To be vested in the program requires 40 quarters, or 10 years, of covered employment. In 2016, in practice, that means earning at least $1,260 in a quarter for that three-month period to count. No one who works has any more or less right to Social Security than anyone else, so the idea that anyone is "skipping the line" is just false.
Despite all that, the idea that unauthorized workers receive Social Security is one of those lies "that can be found circulating around the Internet but contains not one iota of truth," says Social Security expert Nancy Altman.
As it happens, illegal immigrants have been something of a boon to the Social Security system. That's because many of them secured work by showing faked, stolen, or otherwise misused Social Security numbers; some could be workers who paid into the program while present on a work visa, but overstayed the visa and kept working. The Social Security Administration calculated a few years ago that in 2010, the program collected $13 billion from those workers and paid out about $1 billion in benefits to recipients in those categories, for a net profit of $12 billion.
The myth of illegal immigrants receiving Social Security is fueled by misconceptions that have been harder to eradicate than cockroaches. One involves persistent confusion between Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. That's an anti-poverty program aimed at low-income people who are 65 or older, or blind or disabled. It's administered by the Social Security Administration, but it's not part of the Social Security program and it's funded out of the general treasury, not "through the payroll taxes of Americans," despite what this Fox News report from 2003 said.
Nor are any but a tiny percentage of immigrants eligible for SSI at all. As this overview from the National Immigration Law Center explains, the only immigrants who may qualify for SSI or almost any other federal benefit are lawful residents (those with green cards), people officially granted refugee status or asylum, Cuban and Haitian entrants, some abused immigrants along with their children or parents, and victims of human trafficking. When it tightened up assistance programs in 1996, the law center says, Congress reserved its "harshest restrictions on immigrant seniors and immigrants with disabilities who seek assistance under the SSI program."
Legal immigrants with a green card theoretically could bring over their parents and sign them up for SSI under some circumstances. But as Kathy Ruffing of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observes, "there are such circumstances, but they're so rare as to be meaningless." The parents would have to be refugees, which is unlikely since they'd be brought to the U.S. as sponsored entrants; or they'd have to serve in the U.S. military or work at least 40 quarters, or 10 years, in Social Security-covered employment.
Ruffing told us that there was a time when it was a tad easier for adult immigrants to bring their parents from abroad and put them on SSI, though in such cases the child's earnings could be attributed to the parents, which typically made the parents ineligible for SSI. But Congress tightened up the rules even further — in 1996. Memo to the Trump campaign: That was 20 years ago. Please update your knowledge base.
A couple of Trump surrogates tried to push back at the truth last week, after the Washington Post debunked the Trump ad. They didn't get it right, either.
Trump spokesman Stephen Miller maintained that Clinton "supports executive amnesty for illegal immigrants of all ages, which confers guaranteed access to Social Security benefits at U.S. taxpayer expense (net payments will be dwarfed by net withdrawals)." Nope: nothing guarantees access to Social Security benefits except one's work history, and on average, workers born after 1955 will have paid for their own Social Security benefits out of their payroll taxes.
Another surrogate, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), told the Post that Clinton's plan "would give illegal immigrants instant access to Social Security…. She will do this through her plan to continue and expand President Obama's illegal executive amnesty — which includes Social Security Disability Benefits."
Again, no. No one gets "instant access" to Social Security benefits; you have to work to receive them, and that includes Social Security disability. Trump and his echo chamber need to go back to the drawing board.