Social Security checks could go south of border Sergio Bustos Gannett News Service Dec. 10, 2003 12:01 AM WASHINGTON - U.S. and Mexican officials are discussing an agreement that would allow millions of Mexicans to return home and still collect U.S. Social Security benefits. The controversial proposal that could transfer hundreds of millions of dollars in Social Security payments south of the border has riled some Republican lawmakers. They worry that it could reward scores of undocumented Mexican immigrants with a U.S. pension, draining the country's Social Security trust fund at a time when its future solvency is in doubt. "Talk about an incentive for illegal immigration," said GOP Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. "How many more would break the law to come to this country if promised U.S. government paychecks for life?" Supporters of the proposal argue that Mexican immigrants, documented and undocumented, pay millions, if not billions, of dollars in payroll taxes and have the right to claim Social Security benefits. "Let's be honest, there are millions of Mexican immigrants contributing to the Social Security system and the U.S. economy," said Katherine Culliton, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "It's only fair they get back a benefit they deserve that will keep them from dying in poverty." Final approval of any U.S.-Mexican "totalization" agreement is up to the Republican-controlled Congress. The Bush administration supports such an accord as a way to improve U.S.-Mexican relations. And Mexico is prepared to administer an agreement, Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart told lawmakers at a congressional hearing earlier this year. U.S. officials said they are satisfied that the two countries could exchange information easily on potential Social Security recipients. Details of how to put the agreement into effect still need to be worked out. Under a totalization agreement between two countries, workers could accumulate enough credits to qualify for Social Security benefits in either country. The federal government began pursuing such agreements in 1977 to help make Americans sent abroad by their employers eligible for Social Security benefits. Today, the United States has pacts with 20 countries, mostly in Europe. Congress has never rejected an agreement. In 2001, the federal government paid out $173 million in Social Security benefits to about 89,000 foreigners living abroad, a fraction of the $408 billion distributed the same year to 45 million U.S. residents. But a U.S.-Mexican agreement would dwarf the accords with other countries, critics of the proposal say. They point out that the combined number of recipients from those 20 countries is tiny compared with the potentially vast number of Mexican citizens who could become eligible for Social Security. "None of those countries have public policies that encourage illegal immigration to the United States," said Republican Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims. Social Security Administration officials estimate that about 50,000 Mexicans would collect $78 million in the first year of a U.S.-Mexican agreement. They predict that by 2050, 300,000 Mexicans would collect $650 million in benefits a year. But a recent General Accounting Office report said those numbers failed to account for the presence of many potentially eligible, undocumented Mexican immigrants and their families. Census figures show that the United States is home to 9 million Mexican citizens. More than half, about 5 million, reportedly are in the United States illegally, according to federal estimates. Barnhart assured lawmakers that undocumented immigrants do not get Social Security benefits. "That's a myth," she said. "As is the case with our existing agreements, a totalization agreement with Mexico would not alter current law on this issue." That's true, but a provision in the Social Security Act allows undocumented immigrants to get Social Security benefits if the United States and another country have a totalization agreement. Those immigrants would have to prove they had paid into the U.S. system. Former undocumented immigrants also could become eligible if they later become legal residents. A recent investigation by the Office of Inspector General at the Social Security Administration found two such cases. In one, a Mexican man who used his father's Social Security number for nine years in the 1970s claimed after becoming a legal resident in 1989 that he was owed benefits. He began collecting benefits in 1999. And a Mexican woman who worked illegally under an invalid Social Security number for six years in the 1990s later petitioned for credit. She began receiving disability benefits in 1999. "(The agency) does not consider the work-authorization status of the individual when they earned the wages," the inspector general's report said. "It only considers whether the individual can prove he or she paid Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) taxes as part of this work." To qualify for Social Security benefits, Mexicans must prove they worked in the United States at least 18 months. Payments are made on a prorated basis, depending on years worked in the United States. Those who work at least 10 years automatically would qualify for full benefits. Those who also worked in Mexico for a specific period of time could collect benefits in their home country, too. U.S. companies and their American employees working in Mexico also would benefit under the agreement. By not having to pay Social Security taxes to the Mexican government, Social Security Administration officials estimate American workers and their employers would save $134 million each year. David John, a Social Security expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation said he's disappointed the proposed agreement with Mexico has been twisted into an emotional debate over U.S. immigration policy. "Sadly, this whole thing has been hijacked by people on both sides of an issue that must be resolved in a totally different arena," he said. "It shouldn't be part of the discussion in putting together a boring technical agreement between two countries."