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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Social Security for Immigrants and Refugees

Q: Do immigrants and refugees get more in benefits than a retired U.S. citizen gets in Social Security?

A: This is nonsense. The claims propagated by a viral e-mail are not even close to the truth.


Is this true?

This is an insult and a kick in the butt to all of us…

Get mad and pass it on – I don’t know how, but maybe some good will come of this travesty. If the immigrant is over 65, they can apply for SSI and Medicaid and get more than a woman on Social Security, who worked from 1944 until 2004. She is only getting $791 per month because she was born in 1924 and there’s a ‘catch 22’. It is interesting that the federal government provides a single refugee with a monthly allowance of $1,890. Each can also obtain an additional $580 in social assistance, for a total of $2,470 a month. This compares to a single pensioner, who after contributing to the growth and development of America for 40 to 50 years, can only receive a monthly maximum of $1,012 in old age pension and Guaranteed Income Supplement. Maybe our pensioners should apply as refugees! Consider sending this to all your American friends, so we can all be ticked off and maybe get the refugees cut back to $1,012 and the pensioners up to $2,470. Then we can enjoy some of the money we were forced to submit to the Government over the last 40 or 50 or 60 years. Please forward to every American to expose what our elected politicians have been doing over the past 11 years – to the over-taxed American. SEND THIS TO EVERY AMERICAN TAXPAYER YOU KNOW


We’ll start with the most comical error. There is no monthly payment to refugees.

Refugee Re-do

The wrongheaded idea that refugees in the U.S. get “a monthly allowance of $1,890” actually started as a mistaken claim about refugees in Canada. In 2004 an irate Canadian misread a story in the Toronto Star and sent off an error-filled e-mail, which was so widely forwarded it prompted an official debunking by the Canadian government. Somewhere along the way a malicious prankster copied the falsehood almost verbatim and applied it to the U.S. We explained all this in an “Ask FactCheck” item in 2007.

Maximum Mistake

Also wrong – and by a wide margin – is the claim that a Social Security pensioner can get “a monthly maximum of $1,012 in old age pension.” The true figure is more than double that. A person retiring this year at the full retirement age of 66 could qualify for a monthly check of up to $2,323, depending on how much she earned and paid into the system over her working life, according to the Social Security Administration.

Notch Baby Nonsense

The example of the woman who retired in 2004 after 60 years of work is also absurd. For one thing, somebody born in 1924 normally would have retired no later than full retirement age – which then was 65 years and four months – rather than continuing to work until age 80.

It’s remotely possible that a relatively low-income worker would have received a monthly pension check of only $791 per month as claimed, but depending on her earnings over her working life she could have received up to $1,825 per month – which was the maximum pension benefit for persons retiring in 2004 at full retirement age. The average monthly benefit paid to all retirees in January 2004, including those who retired in earlier years, was $903. That was adjusted upward to $922 by the annual cost of living adjustment that year.

The reference to a “catch 22” may be a garbled allusion to the “notch baby” controversy from an earlier decade. Some persons born between 1916 and 1921 felt unfairly treated by an adjustment Congress made in 1977, and they lobbied Congress for years to increase their benefits. Financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn called their grievance “a distortion” in a 1999 article explaining the background. But whatever side one takes in the dispute, it’s a simple fact that  somebody born in 1924 would not have been affected.

Bashing Immigrants

The message seeks to generate outrage about over-generous treatment of “immigrants,” but misleads the reader in several ways – mainly by failing to distinguish between illegal immigrants (who generally don’t qualify for any benefits) and naturalized U.S. citizens.

It begins by saying “If the immigrant is over 65, they can apply for SSI and Medicaid.” Note that SSI, the acronym for Supplemental Security Income, is a welfare system separate from Social Security retirement benefits. Medicaid is a state-federal program providing medical insurance for low-income persons and is separate from the federal Medicare system for any American who reaches age 65.

Generally, legal immigrants – those who have become citizens and some who have legal permission to be in the U.S – can qualify for these programs on the same basis as anybody else. (The rules allowing some non-citizens to get SSI are complicated, and explained here.) Many people see the word “immigrants” and automatically think “illegal,” and the plain fact is that illegal immigrants don’t qualify for either SSI or Social Security.

Illegal immigrants also don’t qualify for Medicaid, except in certain emergency conditions, and that amounts to relatively little. A 2007 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at 48,391 individuals who received services reimbursed under Emergency Medicaid during a 4-year period in North Carolina, a state with a rapidly growing immigrant population. The study found that nearly all the patients were in the U.S. illegally, but that spending for their emergency care (mostly childbirth and treating complications of pregancy) amounted to less than 1 percent of the state’s total Medicaid spending.

To sum up: This email’s claim that immigrants and refugees get more generous Social Security, SSI and Medicaid benefits than ordinary citizens is completely wrong.


Sellar, Don. “Can we dispel this urban myth?Toronto Star. 27 Nov 2004.

Roseman, Ellen. “The government and your money.” 50Plus Magazine. Feb 2005.

Just the Facts: Financial Assistance for Refugees.” Citizenship and Immigration Canada. 22 Nov. 2006, accessed 17 Apr 2009.

Walters, Meridith et al. “TANF Cash Benefits as of January 1, 2004.” Congressional Research Service. 12 Sep 2005.

State of California Department of Social Services. All County Letter No. 07-34E. 17 Oct. 2007.

Social Security Administration. “2009 Social Security Changes.” Oct 2008.

Social Security Administration. “2004 Social Security Changes.” Oct 2003.

DuBard, Annette and Mark W. Massing. “Trends in Emergency Medicaid Expenditures for Recent and Undocumented Immigrants.” Journal of the American Medical Association, 297.10 (2007).