Executive Order Makes Immigrants Eligible for Medicare, Social Security
Policy + Politics

Executive Order Makes Immigrants Eligible for Medicare, Social Security


The approximately 5 million undocumented immigrants who are eligible for deferred deportation and work permits under the president’s recent executive action could also become eligible for Medicare and Social Security, the White House told a Washington Post reporter on Tuesday.

To people familiar with immigration law, this is basically a truism. Anybody working legally in the United States must contribute to Social Security and Medicare, and if they meet the other criteria – work history for Social Security and age for Medicare – they can generally expect to qualify for the programs’ benefits.

Related: Obama’s Order a Dilemma for Some Illegal Immigrants

But the fact may not have been obvious to the general public, which has mixed feelings about the president’s decision last week to go around Congress by ordering executive branch agencies not to enforce deportation rules against a certain class of undocumented immigrant.

A CNN/ORC poll released today found that 50 percent of Americans thought Obama’s action was appropriate and that another 22 percent would have preferred that he do more to help the undocumented. However, while the ends appear to have broad support, the means by which the president achieved them were far less popular. The same poll found that 56 percent of Americans disapprove of the president’s decision to go around Congress.

Opponents of the move warn that as the public becomes more familiar with the policy’s effects, its popularity will begin declining.

“When you put the law aside, you create a cascading series of consequences that are not immediately foreseen,” said Steven Camarota, Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, a think tank that advocates for tighter immigration laws.

Related: GOP Fuels Fears of Job Losses Over Obama’s Immigration Order

The potential addition of millions of undocumented workers to the Medicare and Social Security rolls is one of them, Camarota said.

Republicans, already furious with the president over the executive order on immigration, will be looking for every means possible to turn public opinion against it. A nuanced explanation about individuals with work permits being eligible for Social Security and Medicare might sway some, but opponents claiming that the executive order will doom cherished programs will attract much more public attention.

“If you have what are generally regarded as the most popular entitlement programs - and they are not viable in the long term – and now you are making them even less viable by adding lots of low income folks then that is going to have significant negative impact on political support,” said Camarota.

Camarota’s analysis, of course, relies on the assumption that the long-term finances of the two programs are not improved by lawmakers, and that the majority of undocumented immigrants that remain in the country long enough to benefit from the program are actually low-earning workers.

The addition of millions of tax-paying workers to both the Social Security and Medicare programs would actually benefit them in the short run.

Related: Green Card Study Shows Bias for Asians Over Latinos

Advocates for the undocumented argue that it makes little sense to argue about the impact the mostly young and healthy people targeted by the president’s action would have on programs associated with senior citizens.

“Most of the people who are going to be granted deferred action are much younger than the retirement age,” said Tanya Broder, a senior attorney in the Oakland, California office of the National Immigration Law Center. “The fact that they are lawfully present for renewable three year period now doesn’t mean they are going to run out and collect Social Security and Medicare anytime soon.”

Broder also pointed out the basic unfairness of requiring people to pay taxes into a program and then withholding that program’s benefits from them.

“Undocumented contribute billions without being able to collect any of it when they become old and disabled,” she said.

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