By Mary Johnson
President Obama announced early last summer that he planned to go around Congressional gridlock and overhaul immigration on his own. Since that time, top administration officials have worked entirely behind closed doors to determine just how far the president can act through executive action and stay within the law.
The executive action will likely be the most significant immigration changes of Obama's presidency. Any initiative that supplies green cards and work-authorized Social Security numbers to millions of undocumented immigrants would open a pathway to Social Security benefits. That's because it's work authorization that’s required for entitlement to Social Security - not citizenship.
According to the Congressional Research Service, noncitizens that get work-authorized Social Security numbers would become eligible for Social Security benefits with enough years of earnings and when age requirements are met. Under current law when a claim is filed, Social Security uses all earnings to determine entitlement to benefits, including earnings from jobs worked under fraudulent and invalid Social Security numbers.
TSCL believes that executive action would have the most immediate implications for the Social Security disability insurance program and Medicare. Younger adults, like the majority of immigrant workers, might be able to claim disability benefits, if disabled. When disabled, the number of work credits one needs to qualify for benefits varies depending on age. Workers disabled before the age of 24 may qualify with as little as 6 quarters of work credits (about 1.5 years) — far less than the 40 quarters (about ten years) needed to qualify for retirement benefits at age 62. In addition, disabled beneficiaries qualify for Medicare after two years.
That raises concerns about the overall impact immigration changes would have on the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund. Recently the Social Security Trustees said that the fund faces depletion in just two years. Without Congressional action, benefits would be cut about 23 percent to adjust to the amount of payroll taxes flowing into the program for an estimated 11 million disabled beneficiaries and their dependents.
So far Congress has not made public how it would fix the disability program's financing. The only well-known proposal that still remains on the table would cut the growth in all Social Security recipients’ annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).
Executive action that leaves Congress out of the decision could backfire at election time. A survey of Social Security recipients conducted by TSCL earlier this year found that the overwhelming number of survey participants strongly favor legislation that prohibits the payment of Social Security benefits calculated on earnings from unauthorized work by immigrants.
Social Security Benefits For Noncitizens, Nuschler and Siskin, Congressional Research Service, February 2, 2010, RL32004, http://greenbook.waysandmeans.house.gov/sites/greenbook.waysandmeans.house.gov/files/2012/documents/RL32004_gb.pdf
Social Security Trustees Report, July 28, 2014, page 3. http://www.ssa.gov/oact/tr/index.html