Wage Theft and the Senate's Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744)

The Corker-Hoeven amendment to the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) received widespread attention for its plan to militarize (unnecessarily) a 2,000 mile stretch of the United States at an additional cost of $46 billion. It received less attention for an equally troubling measure that would prevent newly legal residents from receiving credit towards Social Security benefits for work performed while out of status.

An oft-repeated criticism of the unauthorized is that they do not pay taxes. In fact, they pay substantial payroll (and other) taxes. The Social Security Administration's (SSA's) Earning Suspense File (ESF) includes "earnings" for which a name or Social Security number fails to match SSA's records. As of October 2007, the ESF included $661 billion in wage reports. More recent estimates show significant growth in the ESF since 2007. An unknown, but certainly substantial percentage of the earnings in the ESF (perhaps between one-half and three-quarters) come from out-of-status workers. The agricultural, food and beverage, and services industries, which employ large numbers of unauthorized workers, have accounted (in the past) for more than one-half of the wage items in the ESF.

Under current law, previously unauthorized persons can gain credit for their past contributions to Social Security after they secure legal status and correct their records. S. 744, as amended by Hoeven/Corker, would deny credit to the newly legalized for payments made into the system from December 31, 2003 to January 1, 2014.

The financial savings from this provision would be relatively modest, an estimated $800 million in reduced spending between 2014 and 2023, compared to the amendment's additional border security spending of $36.6 billion over the same period. Yet the costs to the credibility and coherence of "reform" legislation would be immense.

The measure would impoverish persons on the path to citizenship as they reach retirement age and can no longer work. It would condition "earned" legalization on denying a benefit already "earned." It would punish workers who have met their legal responsibilities in the context of legislation that seeks to reward work and legality. The unauthorized suffer from labor standards violations at extremely high rates. Unscrupulous employers regularly deny them wages and benefits that they have already earned. Congress should not do the same.