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Commentary: Social Security is about math, not Mexicans

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- For more than a decade, I've written about the need to reform Social Security. And I've blamed older generations of Americans for not fixing a program they know is unsustainable into the future.

My bad. It turns out, if I wanted to get everyone up in arms, all I needed to do was blame illegal immigrants.

Ah, yes. The folks who, we are told, wrecked our schools, ruined our environment and lowered our wages are now poised to steal our Social Security.

Oh, there's some stealing going on all right, but it doesn't have anything to do with illegal immigrants.

Here's the drill: Social Security is an intergenerational shakedown. Every generation pays for the preceding one. Sixty-nine million baby boomers have no problem paying for the World War II generation because, well, there are 69 million of them. But imagine the burden on younger workers of having to keep legions of aging flower children in a comfy retirement.

In 1946, the cost of supporting one retiree was split between 42 workers. Now, we're approaching the point where two workers will support each retiree. The trouble begins in 2016 when -- according to experts -- more will be going out in benefits than will be coming in as payroll taxes.

This is what I worry about -- the math. But, for others, the worry is about something altogether different -- the Mexicans.

Immigration restrictionists are apoplectic over the news that the United States has entered into a "totalization" agreement with Mexico. Under these agreements, which the United States has with 21 other countries, workers who work in two countries during their careers can combine what they earned in both places to qualify for retirement benefits under one or both systems. The restrictionists insist that the U.S. government has conspired with Mexico to let illegal immigrants loot the Social Security system.

That would be quite a charge, if true. But these pacts apply only to people who are working legally.

The worry is that, if Congress passes guest-worker legislation that gives some number of illegal immigrants a "work-authorized" Social Security number, the worker might be in a position, if he met eligibility requirements, to apply for Social Security benefits, including those earned while in the country illegally.

Supporters of totalization point out that current U.S. law bans illegal immigrants from collecting Social Security benefits.

They're right about that. But there is no law prohibiting illegal immigrants with bogus Social Security numbers from paying into the system, something they and their employers do to the tune of more than $7 billion per year in payroll taxes.

That's money the illegal immigrants will never see again, and it has for years helped to keep the entitlement program afloat. So Social Security lives off ill-gotten goods -- the stolen taxes of millions of people, and the assumption that they'll never be claimed.

How odd that the closed-border, closed-mind crowd isn't nearly as troubled by this part of the equation.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Click here to read his column.external link

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr: If you want to get everybody up in arms, just blame illegal immigrants.



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