Eric Ruark's picture


  by  Eric Ruark

The newsplainers at Vox have never gotten a firm grasp of the complexities of U.S. immigration policy, or its downstream effects. In large part, it’s because they haven’t tried very hard, if at all, to view immigration issues outside of a very narrow worldview – a worldview not shared by most Americans, or most citizens living in countries that receive large numbers of immigrants. For Voxxers, all that’s necessary to prove the benefits of mass immigration is a couple of charts and a rote dismissal of any and all evidence that contradicts their position.

A piece last week perfectly illustrates the Vox method. Alexia Fernández Campbell wrote a piece entitled “Why baby boomers need immigrants to fund their retirement, in 2 charts”. Campbell writes:

Economic estimates show that immigration would help save the Social Security system. Not just legal immigration — illegal immigration too.

Anyone reading the post will correctly take the phrase “immigration would help save the Social Security system” to mean immigration would help to prevent the Social Security system from becoming insolvent, or, in plain English, will stop it from going broke. Campbell reinforces that point by referring to an annual report from the Board of Trustees of the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Based on estimates in the trustees report, the more immigrants that come in, the longer the Social Security system will stay solvent. That’s because immigrants, on average, are a lot younger than the overall US population, so their retirement is far off. And undocumented immigrants pay for Social Security, but they’re not allowed to get benefits.

Campbell also cites a report by the Office of the Chief Actuary of the SSA which estimated that in 2010, 1.8 million illegal aliens were using stolen or fraudulent Social Security cards, and projected that number would rise to 3.4 million by 2040. The report concluded that “earnings by [illegal aliens] result in a net positive effect on the Social Security financial status generally.”

Taken out of context as they are, these quotes are extremely misleading. Illegal aliens do pay into the system, but as the SSA report pointed out, this is because they are using stolen or fraudulent Social Security numbers. The money paid in by an illegal alien does increase the Trust Fund, but it will only help the fund’s solvency in future years if benefits are never paid out to that individual. If an illegal alien receives Social Security later on, either through continued fraud or because of an amnesty, the money an illegal alien paid into the system will be in most cases far less than that individual will eventually receive in Social Security payments. This is because the average earnings for illegal aliens are well below those of the native-born or legal immigrants, and, therefore, they will have less taxable income.

Also misleading is the contention that illegal aliens paying Social Security taxes will have a “net positive effect” on the Trust Fund solvency. The positive net effect really means that the negative balance (deficit) will be lower in the short-term than it would have been in the absence of illegal aliens paying into the Trust Fund through the commission of felonious identity theft and/or fraud.

What the SSA is saying here is that illegal immigration will not stop Social Security from going broke, but it may slightly extend Trust Fund solvency and may slightly decrease the Trust Fund’s deficit, but the effect is marginal. Campbell eventually admits as much, 15 paragraphs and 2 charts after saying immigration will help “save” Social Security.

To get an idea of just how misleading it is to talk about the “positive net effect” of illegal immigration on Social Security, we can turn to the February 4, 2015 testimony of SSA Chief Actuary Stephen Goss. In his oral testimony before the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, Goss said President Obama’s executive actions (DACA and DAPA) that would have granted amnesty to about 5 million people would result in a “small positive for the next 75 years as a whole” for the Trust Fund.

In order to find out what this small positive effect of amnesty would be, one had to turn to his written testimony. Here one finds the SSA projected that the Trust Fund would still become insolvent in 2033. Amnestying 5 million people would delay Trust Fund insolvency by three months.

This holds true, albeit over a longer time span, when it comes to legal immigration. While the average earnings of legal immigrants are higher than illegal aliens, they are still lower than the U.S.-born. And even many native-born pay in far less then they receive in benefits. That's why the system is going broke. So, while admitting a large number of immigrants now (on average 1 million a year since 1990) might “save” Social Security for a few more years, it won’t save Social Security in the long haul. It will, however, create more demand for benefits that the government will be unable to pay out, and the amount owed to immigrants as they age, and eventually to their children, grandchildren, etc., will be astronomical.

While it is true that immigrants on average are younger than the native-born, immigration has only a negligible effect on reducing the average age of the total U.S. population. Pew Research Center in 2015 estimated that if average annual immigration had not quadrupled since 1965, the median age in the United States would be 41 years instead of 38 years. If all immigration would have stopped in 2015, Pew projected the median age in 2065 would be 45 years, only three years older than the projected 42 years with immigration. A different report by Pew in 2014 estimated that in order to keep the “old-age dependency ratio constant through 2050” the United States would have to have “immigration inflows that are 15 times the present rate.” (emphasis added)

Reducing immigration substantially and instituting a merit-based system would have a much more positive net effect on the Trust Fund than the immigration system now in place. But immigration is never going to “save” Social Security. That will have to be accomplished by a series of major reforms that may or may not take place given the politics surrounding the issue. My generation and those that follow may never see a dime in Social Security benefits.

Mass immigration is only going to make it exceedingly more difficult to save Social Security because it is vastly increasing the number of people who will be take out far more than they will ever pay into the system, creating an untenable situation.

What Shapes the Vox Paradigm?

Vox’s newsplainers don’t just see immigration as the solution to the Social Security dilemma, they see it as a panacea. If the United States would open its borders it would cure not just all our ills, but all the world’s as well. They can prove this to you in as little as 600 words, not counting the charts. This may sound silly to those of us who have moved past freshman-level philosophizing, but it should be taken seriously as a political movement when members of Congress are calling for the abolishment of ICE.

Andrew Sullivan wrote about a recently resurfaced interview Ezra Klein did with Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primary, which NumbersUSA commented on at the time. The interview illustrated well how Klein, Vox’s editor-at-large, has trouble grasping straightforward concepts, such as job and wage competition for American workers who compete with immigrant workers, or that immigration is not a subset of U.S. foreign policy.

Klein was befuddled by Sanders saying that open borders was “a Koch brothers’ proposal,” and by the notion that a United States Senator should put the interests of American citizens above those of foreign nationals.

Here is Sullivan's take in New York:

What you have here, I think, is a perfect encapsulation of the old and the new left. Sanders has never had a problem with the nation-state; it is, after all, the foundation for any functioning democracy, and a democratic politician will always put the citizens of his country first.... But Ezra really does seem to have an issue — philosophically and morally — with the nation-state. Social justice doesn’t end at the border, after all. And if the goal of the left is universal equality, on what grounds does it not extend to everyone on the planet? Which is to say: why do we have borders at all? Why do we draw any distinction between the citizen and the noncitizen?

Sullivan here points out something very important about the nature of contemporary immigration politics and the rift it has caused in the Democratic Party (Republicans have their own divisions). Klein is basing his opposition “philosophically and morally” to the nation-state on, at best, flimsy theoretical bases, and absolutely no practical underpinning. Sanders (at least in 2016) understood that arguing for immigration expansion is very unpopular with American voters, and open borders has no political constituency, despite being pushed by political megadonors and influential members of the media.

Klein does understand what’s standing in his way when it comes to immigration. He tells Sanders:

"I agree, you have a nation-state structure, you always are going to, the politics don’t allow anything else.” Which is newsplainer for “We would have open borders if it weren’t for those meddling voters.”

Any policy decision made at the federal level is a difficult one because of how many people are affected. Immigration reform means making tough decisions and abiding by those decisions. That’s why an informed and honest and open debate is necessary, not a misty-eyed vision of a world with no borders. I am confidant at least that most Americans don’t believe public policy should be based on the lyrics to a John Lennon song (except for maybe this one).

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

Updated: Sat, Aug 6th 2022 @ 9:59am EDT

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