Immigration and the meaning of social security

By Michelle Chen Feb 10, 2009

Social security, the economy, and immigration have fallen into a very strange orbit in the debate over the stimulus package. Efforts by conservatives to use the economic stimulus bill to expand the controversial e-Verify system seem to be on shaky ground. When the White House delayed the roll-out of the program last month, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas grumbled:

“It is ironic that at the same time President Obama was pushing for passage of the stimulus package to help the unemployed, his Administration delayed implementation of a rule designed to protect jobs for U.S. citizens and legal workers.”

Depends on what you mean by “designed,” since it is increasingly apparent that expanding e-Verify–the new social-security data system currently used by a small fraction of employers–may actually endanger jobs for "legal" workers, while doing essentially nothing to stem document fraud and shunting more workers toward unscrupulous employers who exploit gaps in the law. But let’s step back for a moment and review how the debate has been framed. Immigrants are seen as parasites, job-stealers, frauds, security threats; why shouldn’t struggling “legal” and citizen workers be outraged that undocumented workers could gain from the stimulus by continuing to manipulate the system? The xenophobic vitriol hurled around in Congress–increasingly challenged from both the left and the right–pushes activist into the defensive, pressured to justify why undocumented workers deserve a pathway to a decent existence in American society. Yet, while the rhetoric fixates on immigrants allegedly exploiting benefits they don’t deserve, Washington is missing a separate, more complex, and arguably more significant narrative about immigration’s contributions to the social safety net. Social security, a pillar of the New Deal that may play a key role in the current downturn, is not fundamentally threatened by fraud. But it is buoyed, in part, by the largely unrecognized contributions of immigrant labor, legal and non. Meanwhile, the Latino press reports that many older Latino immigrants are actually entitled to social security benefits but unaware that they can redeem them. The political establishment paints immigrants as criminals and leeches, or at best, units of economic production. What if the discussion on immigration and social security were recast to speak to what social security is actually designed to be: a resource that enables people who have worked hard all their lives to grow old with dignity, regardless of where they came from?