Can Immigrants Save Medicare?

by Michael Sean Winters

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Undocumented immigrants have played a big part in the GOP presidential debates. There, of course, these immigrants are known as “illegals” which has morphed from an adjective to a noun, as if there was something constitutive and indelible in their nature that had a whiff of illegality about it, not that they are human beings or anything like that, still less children of God, who understood that they might find a better life for themselves and their families by crossing the border without proper documents. But, immigrants may be key to shoring up America's most treasured entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare.

As I noted the other day, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in the last debate, staked out a “more humane” position on immigration reform, but when you dig into the details, his proposals do not strike me as very humane. In defending different treatment of undocumented workers who have recently arrived from those who have been here many years and who have substantial familial and community ties, Gingrich discusses the case of someone who has been here twenty-five years, has children or grandchildren, belongs to a church, etc., and argues they should be permitted to stay if a civilian review board agrees. By picking the cut off of twenty-five years, Gingrich is suggesting that we are not talking about a whole lot of people.

So, a recent survey from Pew is not only interesting, it is politically significant. It shows that nearly two-thirds of the 10.2 million undocumented immigrants in this country have been here for more than ten years, of whom, 35% of the total have been here for more than fifteen years. Conversely, only 15% of undocumented immigrants have been here for less than five years. Five years is a long time. It is hard to imagine that someone would not have strong familial or community ties after five years. So, if five, rather than twenty-five, were the cut-off, 85% of undocumented workers would likely fulfill Gingrich’s stipulation of community and family ties sufficient to warrant some normalization of their legal status. (Gingrich does not want to offer citizenship.)

Additionally, the Pew data indicates that nearly half of all undocumented immigrants have minor children. Undocumented immigrants tend to be younger than the average population, so they are more likely to have children. Many of these children are citizens. So, unless the U.S. government wants to be in the business of separating parents from the children, we need to re-think the immigration issue as a family issue. It is my sincere hope that the U.S. bishops, collectively through the USCCB, and individually in their dioceses, will spend as much time and energy and money defending these immigrant families as they are spending on their efforts to defeat same-sex marriage proposals. As regular readers know, I think we lost the battle for “traditional marriage” in the current cultural climate when our nation passed no-fault divorce laws and divorce became as likely an outcome as happiness in most marriages. But, the Latino families are real, flesh-and-blood families, not an abstract concept, and the Church should marshal her resources to defend them.

Looking at this data, I was reminded of an idea I had some time ago. There are now roughly 154 million Americans in the workforce, of whom 140 million are employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I do not know what percentage of undocumented immigrants are undocumented workers, but you can imagine the rate is fairly high and you can bet your bottom dollar that very few of them pay payroll or other taxes. So, to make the math easy, and I am really bad at math so it has to be easy, say 7 million of the undocumented immigrants currently work but pay no taxes. If the country were to grant them a path to citizenship, and legalize their status as workers, they would then be paying taxes. This would increase the workforce by 5%. Because most of these workers are in low-wage employment, they probably would not increase federal revenues from income taxes very much, but they would be contributing to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds through their payroll taxes. A question: If America were to adopt comprehensive immigration reform, and all these people who currently don’t pay taxes started doing so, how many years would be added to the viability of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds? I should like to know the answer to that question and no one seems to know it.

Remember, part of the problem with the funding of these entitlement programs is that we have an aging population that is living longer. These currently undocumented workers are disproportionately young, so they could be paying payroll taxes for years. And they tend to have large families, which would, over the long-term, bring in even more young workers.

It is an axiom of politics that whoever sets the terms of the debate usually wins the debate. The Republican presidential aspirants clearly see immigration as a problem, whereas I would say that immigration without comprehensive reform is the problem. But, no one on the other side of the political divide is effectively making the case that immigration is also a solution. I believe that the most important thing Democrats can do is point to the human and familial aspects of the issue, and especially its distinctly moral and religious aspect: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Dt. 10:17-19) But, the idea that undocumented immigrants can also play a role in salvaging Social Security and Medicare is, if not a trump, a strong side ace. Because, at the end of the day, the problem with undocumented immigrants is not that they are immigrants; the problem is they lack documents and so do not fully participate in America’s social contract. That can be fixed, and you don’t need to build a fence to fix it.

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