Thanksgiving and Social Security: Different Reasons for Welcoming Syrian Refugees

Thanksgiving celebrates the first time in our history when refugees, fleeing persecution, were welcomed and aided by those already here. The Wampanoag tribe not only welcomed the pilgrim-refugees to this land but provided them with food during their first winter when the pilgrim-refugees' own provisions ran short. Those already here taught the pilgrim-refugees how to plant corn, find other food and, ultimately, thrive. At that first Thanksgiving meal, held in 1621, the fifty survivors of the Mayflower sat down with ninety Native Americans to give thanks.

Starting with those first settlers, the United States developed a strong self-image, not always achieved, as a land of opportunity where those seeking a better life would be welcomed openly. In 1782, an immigrant wrote Letters from an American Farmer, in which he described his new nation as a place where "individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men."

Another immigrant wrote the memorable words enshrined on the Statue of Liberty, so symbolic of what America stands for. Those moving words don't simply welcome newcomers. On behalf of the United States, the words request that other nations, "Send those, the homeless, tempest tost to me."

From the start, immigrants have come to our shores seeking a new, better life. We have, undeniably, had moments in our history when fear and prejudice caused us to fall short of our highest ideals -- our refusal, for example, to open our doors widely to refugees from Nazi Germany. When we have acted consistently with our high ideals, though, refugees and other immigrants have made immense contributions to the economic, intellectual and cultural foundations of our country.

Today, we are faced with the same choice we have confronted in the past -- whether to give into fear and prejudice or align ourselves with our highest ideals. Refugees fleeing war-torn Syria are seeking safety and a better life. Over four million Syrians have fled their country's brutal civil war, which has already left over 200,000 people dead. Warmly welcoming these "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" is the morally right action, consistent with our long history, celebrated during this Thanksgiving holiday.

Moreover, for those who lack compassion, there is a selfish reason to make the right choice. Just as immigrants to America have done for centuries, these refugees will add to our culture and strengthen our economy. They will improve our economic security. Just one way they will do that is by improving the finances of Social Security.

People who seek to undermine confidence in the future of Social Security are quick to point out that our nation's population is aging. What they fail to mention is that the aging of the population is a direct result of fewer babies being born. An aging population, after all, simply describes a population with a slower increase in younger people compared to older people. (Life expectancies, often overstated in their average improvements, are actually declining for lower-income women.) According to Stephen C. Goss, Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration, "our population is aging due largely to the drop in birth rates that began over 40 years ago and continues today."

The obvious and best way to offset this decline in birth rates is to open our doors to immigrants. Immigration has served, and continues to serve, as a counterweight to this demographic shift. Immigrants tend to be younger. Leaving your home for an arduous journey in the hope of a better life tends to be a young person's undertaking. Like all immigrants, Syrian refugees tend to be young. According to the UN Refugee Agency, over 50 percent of Syrian refugees are under age 18, and only 3 percent are over age 60.

According to Social Security's actuaries, if we increase net legal immigration by just
300,000 people a year -- less than 0.1 percent of our total population -- about eight percent of Social Security's projected long-range shortfall would disappear.

What is perhaps even less well known than the beneficial economic effect of refugees is the positive impact of undocumented immigrants on the financial health of Social Security. Between four and five out of ten contribute to Social
Security, but, by law, cannot collect the benefits they have earned. The actuaries estimate that Social Security received an extra $ 12 billion in 2010 alone, as a consequence. Moreover, between five and six out of ten undocumented workers are forced to take under the table, unregulated jobs in which they are exploited -- and where, as a side effect, they are unable to contribute a penny towards earned Social Security benefits.

Granting legal status to these workers would add billions more to the Social Security trust funds. The average age of undocumented workers is 36, so they would, for the most part, be paying into the system for decades, without drawing out a penny. The Social Security Administration estimates that comprehensive immigration reform, where these workers would be brought out of the shadows, would add more than 6.5 million taxpayers over a decade, generating more than $275 billion in revenue for Social Security. The increased costs to Social Security would be only an additional $33 billion.

Bluntly put, admitting Syrian refugees would not only be altruistic; it would also be self-interested.

Many politicians (including more than half the nation's governors) are expressing unwillingness to accept, on security grounds, all Syrian refugees or at least all Syrian refugees who are Muslim. This is totally misguided. Even accepting the highly dubious, speculative claim, for purposes of argument, that there are terrorists hiding among the refugees, our screening of refugees is long and highly rigorous, including multiple background checks and interviews with national security professionals. It is highly unlikely terrorists would choose to subject themselves to such an arduous process, particularly when there are far easier options available to them. (Those engaged in the terrorism in Paris, for example, were Europeans who could have entered the United States as tourists.) Any terrorist stupid enough to seek to enter as a refugee would undoubtedly be captured.

Instead of listening to our fear, we should act on our compassion -- and on our self-interest. This Thanksgiving, in addition to enjoying friends, family and football, let's celebrate, and give thanks for, our long, admirable tradition of welcoming those who want to join us here. And let's resolve to act on our highest ideals, as well as our narrow self-interest, by welcoming Syrian refugees and others daring and desperate enough to seek a better life.