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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Republican Campaign Theme Debunked: Social Security for Illegal Immigrants

Twenty-nine ads and counting feature the claim with varying levels of truth and distortion.


Republicans are tagging Democratic opponents across the country for wanting to “give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.” But nobody’s proposing paying benefits to illegals, not until and unless they become US citizens or are granted legal status.

The charge is a mischaracterization of an amendment offered during debate of  the immigration bill that passed the Senate last May with a healthy bi-partisan majority, 62-36. The amendment would change current law to prevent immigrants from getting credit toward future Social Security benefits from taxes paid before they have legal permission to work.

The measure has become a popular campaign issue for Republicans, particularly incumbent House members who raise it against their Democratic challengers. We have counted 29 GOP ads attacking Democrats with various versions of this misleading claim. Similar misconceptions about the measure were spread as part of a chain e-mail last spring and summer.

Along with this latest swarm of ads comes some related mis characterizations, including a claim that the Senate plan “pays foreign workers more than Americans.” The Senate bill does have provisions to ensure that guest workers are paid no less than Americans. But no guest worker could be hired if a US citizen accepted the job.


Most of the ads began airing within the last two and a half weeks, with a new one popping up almost every day.

Twisting the Senate Plan

In Michigan, the National Republican Senate Committee and Republican challenger Mike Bouchard released an ad on the Sept. 29 saying of incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, “while Michigan was losing jobs, she was fighting to give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.” The charge misrepresents an amendment proposed during consideration of the Comprehensive Immigration Act that the Senate approved last spring.

NRSC & Bouchard Ad:
“Not A Lot There”

Announcer: There’s something about Debbie Stabenow. Could be that she’s only passed one bill in six years, and that was to name a building. While Michigan was losing jobs, she was fighting to give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants, voting for higher Death Taxes, higher Social Security taxes, and wasting billions on projects like bicycle paths in Illinois, and a bridge to nowhere in Alaska. Debbie Stabenow, there’s just not a whole lot there.

Bouchard: I’m Mike Bouchard and I approve this message.

Stabenow opposed an amendment that would prevent formerly illegal immigrants from receiving credit for Social Security taxes paid before they became legal workers.

The amounts are huge. The Social Security Administration has what it calls an “earnings suspense file” to track the amount of wages that are taxed for collection but not credited to a specific worker. SSA officials have said that the fund takes in as much as $7 billion a year. That money now goes to pay benefits, effectively subsidizing US beneficiaries with the taxes paid by illegals.

Some senators opposed granting credit, expressing concern about identity fraud. Millions of illegals use phony Social Security numbers that could have belonged to others, expired or simply have been made up. The amendment to strip out the credit provision was killed by a single vote, 50-49. Most Democrats, including Stabenow, were joined by 11 Republicans supporting the credit.

Offensive Misrepresentation?

The NRSC even created a Web site, MuchasGraciasDebbie.com, to attack Stabenow’s record on immigration, which they falsely say includes favoring “Social Security benefits for illegals.” The headline is splashed in the Mexican tri-colors, Stabenow is digitally fitted with a sombrero and the site welcomes viewers with the song “Mexican Hat Dance.” A Latino advocacy group, the National Council of La Raza, has asked for the site to be removed because it is offensive and misrepresents policy debates.

The charge has been used by other Republican Senate challengers, such as Mike McGavick, who is hoping to unseat Sen. Maria Cantwell in Washington state. In an ad that began running Oct. 5, McGavick says:

McGavick: Sen. Cantwell voted to allow Social Security benefits to illegals — I’d have said no way.

Extending a Senate Plan to House Races

No less than 15 Republican House candidates, nearly all of them incumbents, have accused their Democratic opponents of wanting to give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants, or implied that they want to do so. While most of these attacks use the Senate’s bill as the point of reference, they vary in their accuracy.

Chabot Ad:
“Immigration Facts”

Announcer: John Cranley’s ad is false. The facts: Steve Chabot helped pass tough immigration laws. Chabot voted to add thousands of border agents, restrict taxpayer benefits for illegals. And he’s fighting against amnesty. John Cranley would allow 11 million illegal immigrants to become US citizens. He would even give them Social Security benefits. Here’s the proof, John Cranley’s name on the pro-amnesty legislation. John Cranley, we just can’t trust him.

Chabot: I’m Steve Chabot and I approve this message.

Discussing illegal immigrants in the closely contested 1st district of Ohio, Rep. Steve Chabot says his opponent John Cranley “would even give them Social Security benefits” in his ad “Immigration Facts.”

That’s deceptive because, as we’ve noted, no illegal worker would be paid Social Security benefits, and current law already allows illegal workers to get Social Security credit for the taxes they pay while illegal, if and when they become citizens or gain legal permission to work.

As a Cincinnati City Councilman, Cranley voted for a resolution that supported the Senate bill and urged lawmakers to enact it. The narrator says, “he would even give them [illegal immigrants] Social Security. Here’s the proof: his name on the pro-amnesty legislation.” What the ad shows is not the Senate legislation; it’s the one-and-a-half page local resolution endorsing the Senate bill.

In Nevada’s 3rd district, Rep. Jon Porter has attacked his opponent Tessa Hafen on the issue in two separate ads. One titled “Washington Ideas” says Hafen supports “a plan that allows illegal aliens to collect Social Security,” referring to the Senate bill. A  second ad, “Borders,” comes closer to accurately portraying the complex issue, saying Hafen supports “giving Social Security to immigrants for work they did illegally.”

However, the Porter campaign stretches to connect Hafen to the provision. When contacted by FactCheck.org, Porter’s campaign cited a Sept. 21 debate in which Hafen said:

Hafen: As far as immigration; that was a tough bill in the House that would’ve made illegal immigrants felons. I support what President Bush and the Senate have tried to do.

Porter’s campaign did not produce any statement by Hafen supporting the specific Social Security provision that is in question here. Besides that, Porter himself has supported elements of the Senate’s bill and the President’s immigration proposals. The Las Vegas Sun quoted Porter as saying, “I support looking at options at some point for the 12 million people living in the shadows.”

Ted Kennedy’s $50-Billion Bill?

Some ads that use the Senate bill to attack Democrats contain other distortions.  For instance, in the race for Colorado’s 7th District, Republican Rick O’Donnell released an ad on Oct. 2 saying his opponent “Ed Perlmutter supports Ted Kennedy’s plan to give illegal aliens amnesty. It costs over $50 billion dollars. Perl mutter would give illegals welfare, Social Security, even in-state tuition rates at our colleges.” For one thing, it’s worth noting that of the six sponsors of “Ted Kennedy’s plan,” five are Republicans, including John McCain of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas; Kennedy is the only Democratic sponsor.

The $50-billion figure is spread over 10 years, which the ad fails to mention. The Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate package actually places the 10-year cost at $48 billion. Furthermore, the CBO says most of that cost appears to be due to a mistake in drafting a tax provision which, if corrected to reflect the sponsors’ actual intent, would cut nearly $44 billion from that figure. That would put the 10-year cost at closer to $4 billion.

Foreign Workers Paid More?

Two House Republicans are claiming that their opponents favor paying foreign guest workers more than Americans. Arizona’s 5th District Rep. J.D Hayworth, in one of three such ads, claims his opponent Harry Mitchell supports a plan that “pays foreign workers more than Americans.” Nevada Rep. John Porter’s ad “Borders,” says the plan  “actually proposes paying illegal immigrants more than Americans for some jobs.”

That’s a stretch. The candidates’ aides say their ads refer to a provision of the Senate bill that would create a special class of immigrant workers, the so-called guest worker program. The legislation requires that employers of guest workers pay them at least as much as they pay all others for the specific job in question. They would be required to pay guest workers more only if the government-determined “prevailing wage” for that job is higher. That’s to prevent employers from hiring guest workers at lower wages than Americans and driving down US wages.

In any case, the legislation says employers couldn’t hire a guest worker before taking several steps to ensure that no American worker was available to fill the job.

Correction Oct. 11: Our original story said that the “Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants” charge was a mischaracterization of part of the immigration bill that passed the Senate. In fact, it is a mischaracterization of current law, which would have been changed under a Republican amendment that failed narrowly.

Current law allows an immigrant to receive credit for future Social Security benefits for work done while they were illegal – so long as they eventually obtain authorization to work and a valid Social Security number. The amendment was offered by Sen. John Ensign of  Nevada and would have prohibited any credit for work done without permission, even if an immigrant later gains legal status or becomes a citizen.



Watch Porter’s Ad: “Borders”

Watch NRSC & Bouchard Ad: “Not a Lot There”

Watch Chabot Ad: “Immigration Facts”

Watch Hayworth Ad: “Dismissed”

Watch O’Donnell Ad: “Amnesty”


Cook, Tony, “Hafen vs. Porter: Can Porter put distance between himself and Bush? Can Hafen convince voters that not being Porter is good?” Las Vegas Sun. 19 Sept 2006.

Hurt, Charles, “Illegals granted Social Security,” The Washington Times. 19 May 2006.

Porter, Eduardo, “Immigrants Pad Books, balance Social Security,” New York Times . 10 April 2005.

“Bush Urges Senate to Approve Immigration Bill by Memorial Day,” AP. 25 April 2006.

“Hispanic group criticizes anti-Stabenow Web site,” AP. 5 Oct 2006.

“Las Vegas forum draws Titus, Porter, Hafen; Gibbons absent,” AP. 22 Aug 2006.

U.S. Senate, 109th Congress, 2nd Session. Vote No. 157.

U.S. Senate, 109th Congress, 2nd Session. Vote No. 130.