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Posts Misrepresent Immigrants’ Eligibility for Social Security Numbers, Benefits

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Quick Take

Immigrants who are lawfully living or authorized to work in the U.S. are eligible for a Social Security number and, in some cases, Social Security benefits. But viral posts make the false claim that “illegal immigrants” can receive Social Security numbers and retirement benefits, and they confuse two programs managed by the Social Security Administration.

Full Story

The flow of immigrants across the southern border hit a record high at the end of 2023, the Pew Research Center reported, and immigration has become a dominant issue in this election season. But, as we’ve written, politicians and social media posts have spread misinformation exaggerating immigration numbers and distorting the political impact of immigrants in the U.S.

Another persistent yet false claim about immigrants in the country illegally and Social Security benefits is also circulating again. Immigrants who are not authorized to be in the United States are not eligible for such benefits, as we’ve previously written.

An April 12 Facebook post, however, claims, “Illegal immigrants get BOTH social security numbers AND Social Security BENEFITS!! This massive story has been BURIED by the mainstream media!! This information can now be found right on the government’s website. If social security — that we as taxpayers have paid into our entire lives — is ‘broke’… then why are we expanding benefits to those are not citizens and not here legally???”

A nearly identical claim was posted on Instagram and received more than 2,500 likes.

The posts show two sections on the Social Security Administration’s website purportedly to back up their claims. But the posts misrepresent the government’s programs and who’s entitled to receive benefits.

In one section shown in the posts, titled “Social Security Numbers for Noncitizens,” the Social Security Administration says (emphasis ours), “Generally, only noncitizens authorized to work in the United States by the Department of Homeland Security” can get a Social Security number, which is “used to report a person’s wages to the government and to determine that person’s eligibility for Social Security benefits.”

Nilsa Henriquez, a spokesperson for the Social Security Administration, confirmed to us in an email, “In order for a person to be assigned a Social Security number (SSN), they must meet our evidence requirements and be a United States citizen; or an individual lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence; or an individual lawfully admitted to the United States on a temporary basis who has Department of Homeland Security (DHS) authorization to work.”

Social Security numbers can also be assigned to “an individual with a valid nonwork reason… For example, they need an SSN because of a federal or state law requiring an SSN to get a benefit or service,” Henriquez said.

Many of the immigrants arriving at the U.S. southern border in recent years have sought asylum, claiming they fear returning to their home countries because of persecution and other dangers.

“While asylum seekers who have come across the border do not have any kind of durable legal status in the United States, they are legally allowed to stay in the country while their asylum application is pending,” Julia Gelatt, associate director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, told us in an April 26 email. “It is legal to request asylum, no matter how one entered the United States.”

“Of all of the foreign-born people who enter the United States each year, most are coming with some kind of legal status – a green card for permanent residence, refugee status, or a temporary visa like a student visa, H-2A farmworker visa, or H-1B high-skilled work visa. Under the Biden administration, many people – but a smaller number than those entering with visas — are also entering the United States with humanitarian parole, which grants the temporary right to live and work in the United States,” Gelatt said.

“Asylum seekers whose application has been pending for more than six months who apply for and are granted work authorization can get SSNs,” Gelatt also said. “People who cross the border illegally who have not applied for asylum usually cannot get work authorization or an SSN.”

So, immigrants can receive a Social Security number, provided they are “authorized to work” in the U.S. and are “lawfully admitted” to the U.S. when they apply.

SSI Not the Same as Retirement Benefits

The social media posts also show a section of the SSA website titled, “Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for Noncitizens.”

That section explains that noncitizens may be eligible for SSI payments if they are “lawfully admitted for permanent residence, granted conditional entry, paroled into the United States, admitted as a refugee, granted asylum, an alien whose removal is being withheld,” or if they fall into another classification of immigrants from specific countries such as Cuba, Haiti, Iraq or Afghanistan.

In addition, a noncitizen must be “lawfully residing” in the U.S. or fall into another specific category to receive SSI payments.

By citing the information about SSI, the social media posts confuse that program with Social Security retirement benefits. Both programs are managed by the Social Security Administration, but they are not the same.

SSI is a “needs-based program for people with limited income and resources” who are elderly or disabled, the Social Security Administration explains. The program is funded through general tax revenues, and the amount a person receives is based on federal and state laws which “take into account where you live, who lives with you and what income you receive.”

The social media posts refer to Social Security as a program “that we as taxpayers have paid into our entire lives” and “is broke.” The Social Security retirement program is the one workers pay into throughout their lives. It is an entitlement program funded through taxes paid by workers and employers and collected into trust funds. A recipient’s payments are based on work history and earnings.

Many critics warn the program is going broke, but that’s not accurate. Unless the program is changed or new revenues are raised, the reserves of the Social Security trust fund related to the retirement portion of the program are projected to become depleted in 2033. At that time the program would only have enough income to pay 77% of scheduled retirement benefits, according to the latest report from the trustees overseeing the program.

The Social Security Administration says on its website (emphasis ours), “Lawfully present noncitizens of the United States who meet all eligibility requirements can qualify for Social Security benefits.”

Henriquez, the SSA spokesperson, told us, “In terms of benefits, in addition to several specific eligibility requirements, each Social Security program also has a United States lawful presence payment provision which applies to retirement, survivors, or disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).” 

Gelatt, of the Migration Policy Institute, said, “Just because someone can get an SSN does not mean they are immediately eligible for Social Security benefits. … Someone in the US is not eligible for Social Security disability or old-age benefits until they have accrued enough work history in the United States – that’s usually at least about 10 years of work, and they have to be ‘lawfully present’ … to be eligible to receive the benefits even once they have that work history.”

Contrary to the claims in the social media posts, someone who is not authorized to be in the U.S. is not eligible for benefits of the Social Security retirement program that is financed by a payroll tax on employers and employees.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.


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