Social Security for Illegal Aliens?

The Senate yesterday narrowly defeated an amendment by John Ensign that would have denied Social Security benefits to illegal aliens.

The Senate voted yesterday to allow illegal aliens to collect Social Security benefits based on past illegal employment — even if the job was obtained through forged or stolen documents. “There was a felony they were committing, and now they can’t be prosecuted. That sounds like amnesty to me,” said Sen. John Ensign, the Nevada Republican who offered the amendment yesterday to strip out those provisions of the immigration reform bill. “It just boggles the mind how people could be against this amendment.”

The Ensign amendment was defeated on a 50-49 vote. “We all know that millions of undocumented immigrants pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for years and sometimes decades while they work to contribute to our economy,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. “The Ensign amendment would undermine the work of these people by preventing lawfully present immigrant workers from claiming Social Security benefits that they earned before they were authorized to work in our community,” he said. “If this amendment were enacted, the nest egg that these immigrants have worked hard for would be taken from them and their families.”


“It makes no sense to reward millions of illegal immigrants for criminal behavior while our Social Security system is already in crisis,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. “Why in the world would we endorse this criminal activity with federal benefits? The Senate missed a big opportunity to improve this bill, and I doubt American seniors will be pleased with the result.”


Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said it would be unfair to deny illegals the benefits. “We should not steal their funds or empty their Social Security accounts,” he said. “That is not fair. It does not reward their hard work or their financial contributions. It violates the trust that underlies the Social Security Trust Fund.”

Ensign and DeMint are being dishonest in saying that illegal aliens are criminals, let alone felons. While they are in violation of immigration law, they are not in violation of current criminal law–let alone convicted of such. There has been an attempt in recent weeks to change that, although without success. Even if the law were changed, it would not apply ex post facto.

Further, while my initial reaction in getting an email (from DeMint’s office) with the subject: “Illegals granted Social Security!” was negative, it only takes a moment’s reflection to see that McCain and Leahy are right. Social Security is, theoretically if not in reality, a pay-as-you-go system. For those people who pay into the system to be denied benefits would be unconscionable.

Indeed, while the law was recently amended to deny Social Security benefits to fugitives and inmates, my understanding is that those no longer incarcerated, even convicted felons, are entitled to their benefits. It would be quite strange to treat people whose only “crime” was sneaking across our border to work were treated more harshly than pedophiles and murderers.

Still, this is a great political issue:

Within hours, the vote had become an issue in this fall’s elections, raised by a Republican challenger to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat. “Instead of protecting the retirement security of Americans who are earning an honest living and abiding by the laws of our country, Debbie Stabenow sided with people who are here illegally and abuse our Social Security system,” Oakland County, Mich., Sheriff Michael Bouchard said in a press release. “Allowing illegal immigrants to use their illegal work history as credit towards receiving Social Security benefits shows that Debbie Stabenow has forgotten who she is supposed to be working for in the U.S. Senate.”


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Where do I start? How do illegal aliens get social security numbers? If someone breaks into your house, do you reward them? Do those who populate the Senate have any idea what the vast majority of Americans think about people who sneak into this country illegally, then demand rights? They send vast amounts of money earned in this country to Mexico. That does not aid our economy, increase our job market, and by the way my gardener makes $20 an hour. That is not bad considering the skill necessary to run a lawn mower. The statement that illegals are doing jobs the rest of us will not do is a convenient lie. What we will not do is work for the same rate of pay as someone who has no legal status. That hurts the job market and all wage earners.

  2. James Joyner says:

    ZR: Not sure what any of that has to do with paying Social Security benefits to those who have paid into the system.

  3. Christopher says:

    OK, James, I’ll give the argument to you.

    But why doesn’t the SS administration fund an immigration team in LA and San Diego to search for these SS illegals, and deport them? It would cost a lot less than the benefits, and so SS gains a lot of money, we get rid of illegals, but no one “denied” them benefits.

  4. Christopher says:

    And I’m with Zelsdorf: how in the world do illegals get SS #’s? How? How how how?? I have to show a SS card when I get a new job as part of IDing myself. Are we giving these illegals legal SS #’s that make them appear legit to potential employers? The new trend is to blame the employers for hiring illegals, yet maybe the employers are getting duped by our own govt. into hiring them! Wat about illegals kids in schools? When the school (or DMV, or welfare office, or, or, or) finds out the parents are here illegally, why don’t they just call immigration to deport them???

    This issue is so strange. The illegal immigrant has to be just as astonished as the average US citizen. Bleeding heart liberals-it’s all their fault. I AM SERIOUS! And there aren’t any conservatives with balls to do anything about it (except Ensign, and Bush seems to be growing a pair).

  5. Since it is not legal for them to be working, then anything they paid into the SSA based on wages would be the fruits of illegal activity. Why is that so hard to understand?

  6. DaveD says:

    I have a personal hope that the House of Representatives will continue to be significantly less inclined to provide the President this fawning acquiescence to a nebulous immigration policy program.

  7. Christopher says:

    DaveD, it may be nebulous, but its 100% more than what we’ve had, which is barely nothing. Plus, AOL’s (admittedly unscientific) poll had people supporting the English language and fence components 3 out of 4.

  8. JimT says:

    Anyone know what the penalty is for using a false social security number? What happens if I (a natural born citizen) decided there was too much baggage attached to my current SSN and wanted to start using a new one? Is that a felony?

  9. Steve Verdon says:

    Well James…there go whatever Conservative “credentials” you had. You are clearly not Statist and Authoritarian enough for most Conservatives…well at least if you listen to some on this issue.

  10. Steve,

    I will acknowledge that having a law and expecting that the law is enforced can be considered “statist”, but surely such a designation would sweep up all those to the right of anarchists.

    Let me try one more time. It is illegal to employ an illegal immigrant. Any SSA tax paid is paid as part of an illegal transaction. So to say retroactively that the illegal transactions are now okay seems a bit odd to me. Let alone the nightmare of trying to sort out SSA taxes associated with false or stolen SS numbers.

    So this is a bit like saying it would be unconscionable for people who hijacked an airplane to not get the frequent flier miles. That is supposed to be a benefit reserved for those who play by the rules.

  11. McGehee says:

    Ensign and DeMint are being dishonest in saying that illegal aliens are criminals, let alone felons.

    I was letting that go until the part about stolen Social Security numbers. Isn’t identity theft a felony?

  12. Thaddeus Wojcik says:

    I have posted on eBay for sale (except where and to the extent it would be unlawful) the right to receive my future social security benefits at a net present value. Spread the word! You can search under â??social securityâ?? on eBay to find the link.

    Perhaps peopleâ??s future benefits could be salable, pooled and then traded as asset-backed securities. No fix of any type seems on the horizon, however, so before the Ponzi scheme implodes, maybe an institution would be willing to buy on an individual basis (even if only for pubicity, either for itself or for the 800 lb gorilla nobody is discussing).

  13. Steve Verdon says:

    No YetAnotherJohn, you are a statist for feeling that Americans are entitled to jobs, that the government is the one to protect those jobs for Americans and so forth. Tell me, how do you feel about set-asides for various groups? Do you support of oppose them? If you oppose them, how can you support what amounts to set-asides for the group known as American workers?

  14. klbmarsh says:

    Actually, the illegal alien is committing a felony if he signed a W2 swearing that it is in fact his/her tax ID/SSN.