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Undocumented immigrants – financial burden or boon?

As the debate over immigration reform tugs predictably back in Washington, an undercurrent of ageism and disability bias has been flowing beneath more obvious racial and class implications.

Paul Kleyman | 5/9/2013, noon

As the debate over immigration reform tugs predictably back in Washington, an undercurrent of ageism and disability bias has been flowing beneath more obvious racial and class implications.

Take, for instance, the recent USA Today op-ed co-authored by former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., now president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which warned, “The truly enormous costs come when unauthorized immigrants start collecting retirement benefits.”

DeMint and his colleague continued, “Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and other entitlement programs already impose huge, unfunded liabilities on taxpayers.” The op-ed goes on to declare that “an amnesty” proposed for 11 million unauthorized immigrants will add significant taxpayer costs because unauthorized immigrants average only a 10th-grade education.

Doing the right thing

Rather than being a burden, however, according to the Social Security Administration’s chief actuary, those presumed drains on the system have been a boon. They add $15 billion a year to Social Security in payroll taxes, only taking out $1 billion annually in benefits. In the long term, immigration reform would modestly cut Social Security’s deficit, not worsen it.

According to Pew Research, that’s partly because of future rising income and home ownership levels for those immigrants’ children.

“Those opposed to immigration reform have attempted to use vital programs, like Social Security, as an economic excuse to avoid doing the right thing,” said Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM).

In a policy brief last month, NCPSSM cited Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has said that immigration reform would actually lead to higher wages and allow immigrants to pay more towards Social Security.

“They’re going to pay more into the Social Security system. The CBO has run these numbers in the past; in the short-run, there’s a big boost for the Social Security system,” Alden said.

White House and Senate ‘roadmaps’

According to a new policy analysis by the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA) and National Council on Aging (NCOA), today’s approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants include 1.3 million individuals ages 45-54, and another half million who are 55 and older.

NHCOA’s Jason Coates and NCOA policy analyst Joe Caldwell examined “roadmaps” to citizenship outlined so far by the White House and the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” with legislation to come in a few months.

Both proposals signal long waits before eligible immigrants could even apply for lawful permanent resident status (green cards) and citizenship. And their access to health care and economic security benefits, especially important to elders and those with disabilities, is in doubt.

Under the current proposals, unauthorized immigrants could end up waiting a decade or more to qualify for health care and other safety net programs.

While the Senate plan would link the waiting period for being able to apply for green cards to some assurance of border security, the White House has proposed allowing undocumented immigrants provisional status for six to eight years before they could become permanent residents. (Both the administration and Senate frameworks would expedite the process for “DREAMers,” agricultural workers and highly skilled immigrants with advanced degrees in such areas as science and technology.)