By Mary Johnson
The Social Security Administration's (SSA) Office of Inspector General recently performed a rare audit to check the lawful presence of noncitizens receiving Social Security benefits - the first such audit since 2009. Five years ago the SSA got a good report. The Inspector General found no errors in the processing of the cases reviewed, saying, "In all cases, the documentation we reviewed indicated these noncitizens resided in the United States and were lawfully admitted by DHS (the Department of Homeland Security)".
But there has been a dramatic decline in SSA's controls since 2009 to ensure beneficiaries are lawfully present. The Inspector General found that the SSA failed to obtain, or keep, evidence of lawful U.S. presence for nearly one-third of the sample of 50 claimants reviewed. After the SSA contacted those individuals, 10 percent, did not provide any evidence that they were lawfully present in the U.S. The amount of money potentially involved is $384,582 over ten years for five individuals who failed to supply evidence. That averages $76,916 per person.
While the sample was small, the fact that 10 percent who couldn't be verified has big fiscal implications. According to the report, there are 885,019 non-citizens now on SSA's current rolls. If we assume 10% of that entire group can't supply evidence of legal presence, that's potentially 88,500 people who may be ineligible for benefits. Assuming benefit costs roughly average the same, the SSA may have improperly paid out $6.8 billion over the ten-year audit period.
Since December 1, 1996, noncitizens applying for benefits must be "lawfully present" in the U.S. to receive benefits. Those claiming benefits must submit appropriate documents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when they apply, and SSA employees are supposed to use the DHS online systems to validate the claimant's lawful presence status before awarding benefits. When the SSA can't verify the applicant's status, the administration will use additional procedures such as submitting other names the applicant may have used.
The SSA is required to suspend payments to beneficiaries who don't provide evidence of lawful presence. But while lawful presence is a requirement to receive benefits, lawfully-authorized work and earnings are not a requirement to determine entitlement to benefits once lawful presence is established. Under current law, initial benefits are calculated on all earnings. That may include earnings from jobs worked without legal authorization, under invalid Social Security numbers.
Because of the huge potential cost of improper payments to Social Security at a time when the program is in cash deficit, TSCL believes that further audit work is called for. The Social Security Administration should review all non-citizen claimants in current pay status to ensure that the agency has retained the required documents and verified legal status. In addition, when individuals do not supply requested documentation, TSCL supports the suspension of benefits as required by current law in order to protect the benefits of others who are legally present.
TSCL has long supported legislation that would prohibit payment of Social Security benefits based on illegal work under invalid Social Security numbers. Let your Member of Congress know what you think about this problem. If you do be sure to cite the May 2014 audit by the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration. Send an email by clicking here.
Sources: “Title II Beneficiaries Receiving Benefits Under The Lawful Presence Payment Provisions,” Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration, May 2014, A-09-12-21288. “The Social Security Administration’s Compliance With Certain Evidence Requirements That Restrict Noncitizens’ Eligibility For Title II Benefits,” Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General, September 2009.