Commonsense Immigration Reform Respects Our Elders

Imagine contributing your hard-earned money into a retirement system all the while knowing that you’ll never be able to access the program’s benefits. Sounds unfair, right? But it’s a sad reality for 72-year-old Ricardo Perez.

The California resident has paid into Social Security since migrating from Mexico in 1985. However, he’ll never receive those benefits under our current immigration policies. These policies also prohibit undocumented workers from receiving Medicare, food stamps, subsidized housing or other public programs that hold deep poverty at bay for millions of senior citizens.

Because undocumented immigrants of all ages are twice as likely as the general population to live in poverty, elderly immigrants are less likely to have designated retirement savings. To survive, many of these seniors are left with little choice but to keep working low-wage, often physically demanding jobs–street vendor, cleaning houses or working as home caregivers–for the rest of their lives.

Because of his status, Perez believes this will be his fate. His wages as a paletero or “ice cream salesman” only cover life’s basic necessities; so saving for retirement is not an option.

“I spend what I make on rent and food. If I stop working, if I take a break, I’ll die,” Perez told NBC News.

Another reality about aging immigrants
Perez’s story, as well as wide bodies of research, dispels the ideological-based myth that undocumented citizens place a strain on the U.S. economy by using government resources without paying for them.

Undocumented workers contribute about $15 billion a year to Social Security as well as billions into Medicare. But they don’t receive benefits when they reach retirement age due to their undocumented status or, in some cases, migration from the United States.

For many aging workers, such as Perez, returning to their birth countries is not an option as it could mean permanent exile or leaving their families, friends and communities.

Perez says he worries pretty much every day about what will happen to him, but he’s hopeful Congress will pass immigration reform.

In reality, we could do better
Passing a commonsense immigration reform bill would do more than give Perez hope. It would help millions of workers gain access to an integral part of the American Dream: a dignified retirement.

Last year, the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Chief Actuary released an analysis of the bipartisan Senate-passed immigration reform bill (S. 744), demonstrating that commonsense immigration reform will strengthen Social Security over the long term.

As legal status is granted to current undocumented workers, contributions to the Social Security program will increase. The Social Security Administration estimates the Senate’s bipartisan bill will add more than 6.5 million taxpayers over a decade, generating more than $275 billion in revenue for Social Security and costs would increase by only $33 billion, resulting in a significant net benefit.

The merits associated with commonsense immigration reform alone should be enough to motivate lawmakers to stop stalling and move reform to a vote in the House. However, the GOP leadership is still wavering.

That’s why SEIU and our allies continue to push for Congress to address our broken immigration system. We know every day that goes by without immigration reform millions in our communities suffer. We need a lasting solution that will protect our whole community.

We also need to be a country that provides our elders with an opportunity to have a retirement reflective of their years of hard work. In America, no one should have to work until they die or have the questions Perez asks himself.

“How will I end my life? What happens if I can’t work? I will get to 80, 85 and then what? I’d like to live with more security. It’s hard thinking about how I will die, without anything to help me.”

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