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Under Executive Action, Immigrants Are Entitled To Social Security Benefits

We're a little late to this news, but we're pointing it out to set the record straight: The White House says immigrants protected under President Obama's executive action will be eligible for Social Security benefits.

When Obama made a Nov. 20 announcement that he was shielding from deportation some 4 million immigrants here illegally, a White House official told reporters during a briefing that those immigrants would not receive Social Security benefits. We reported that in several blog posts.

The White House is now saying otherwise.

During a briefing earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said it was his understanding that if immigrants paid taxes, they would be eligible for Social Security and Medicare. Earnest said:

"The goal of the executive — one of the goals of the executive action program or executive action that the President announced, as it relates to immigration, about 10 days ago, was related to bringing those individuals who have been in this country for some time out of the shadows, giving them a work permit ... and under the books, and giving them a Social Security number and making them taxpayers. And that does mean that they're going to be filing their taxes on a regular basis and that does mean that if they qualify for the child tax credit, for example, as a taxpayer that would be something that they would benefit from. But we released this study from the Council of Economic Advisers who talked about the significant economic benefits for the country associated with bringing these individuals out of the shadows so they're not getting paid in cash under the table but actually sort of part of the broader economy."

Katherine Vargas, a White House spokeswoman, told us in an email that once immigrants register under deferred action, they become taxpayers, contributing their "fair share into Social Security and Medicare."

"And only after they've paid taxes for over a decade will they become eligible for Social Security," Vargas wrote. "As taxpayers, deferred action recipients will pay into these systems and receive the same benefits on these issues as other taxpayers."

(It's worth pointing out that all taxpayers have to work for at least a decade to receive benefits.)

Vargas added that immigrants protected under Obama's plan will not receive other federal benefits such as welfare, food stamps, Medicaid or benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

The Washington Post reports that Republicans were surprised by all this. The paper quotes Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski saying:

"First with Obamacare we were told we should pass it and then read it to find out what was in it. Now Obama overreached and acted unilaterally on immigration, which should have been vetted and authorized by Congress, and we're finding out there's more to the story than Obama and the Democrats originally told Americans."

Stephen Miller, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, told Fox News that this new eligibility is "an attack on working families."

"The amnestied illegal immigrants are largely older, lower-wage and lower-skilled and will draw billions more in benefits than they will pay in," he said.

It's also worth noting that Obama's executive actions could be quickly erased by the next president.

We've asked the White House to explain why their official announcement first said immigrants were not eligible for Social Security. We have yet to hear back.

Update at 11:17 a.m. ET. On Dec. 4: Misspoke:

A White House official says the official who originally said immigrants would not receive Social Security benefits misspoke. The official mistakenly lumped in Social Security with other benefits — like subsidies under the Affordable Care Act — that immigrants will not be entitled to.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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