Retiree immigration adds billions to deficits

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

Roughly one-in-eight new immigrants to America are 55 or older, ensuring there’s little financial payback for the $300,000 or more in taxpayer support given on average to each older immigrant during the last few decades of their lives.

This aspect of immigration policy was highlighted April 13 on President Barack Obama’s campaign website, when an Ohio organizer posted a short item titled “A first time voter: Pedro’s remarkable story.”

“Pedro C.,” now 68 years old, “moved to the United States from Peru 6 years ago,” said the post by Riley Wells, a field organizer in Franklin County.

Because Pedro spoke little English, said Wells, “it was difficult for us to understand each other… [but] Pedro pointed to a mural of President Obama on our office wall and gave a thumbs up.”

“That was all I needed to see… He has already registered and is ready to cast his vote for Barack Obama,” said Wells.

Immigrants can get citizenship, and the right to vote, five years after arriving.

Immigration is a hot-button issue in the election, and Democrats are looking to spur turnout by Latinos. “I’m absolutely obsessed with Latino voters,” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign director, told Rolling Stone.

In 2008, Obama won 67 percent of Latino voters, which helped him win several states. His campaign is trying to repeat that success this November, partly by accusing Republicans of being “extreme” on immigration.

Much of the Democratic criticism has been focused on Arizona’s SB-1070 law, which allows state police to question detained people about their residency status. But an April poll of 2,577 registered voters shows that the 2010 Arizona law is very popular.

It is supported by 68 percent of all respondents, 72 percent of independents, and 47 percent of Hispanics, but only 46 percent of Democrats, said the Quinnipiac University poll, which was released April 20.

In a Supreme Court hearing Wednesday, a majority of the eight justices indicated they did not think the law clashes with the Constitution.

In 2011, 5 percent of new Green Cards went to 53,126 people aged 65 or older, and another 7.3 percent of cards went to 77,198 people aged 55 or older, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.

Many of those older immigrants were admitted under family unification rules that allow new citizens to bring their relatives into the United States.

In contrast, only 6.3 percent of 2011 green cards went to 66,831 immigrants carrying advanced university degrees.

Older immigrants are near the end of their working lives, and quickly become eligible for welfare programs.

In 2011, only 47 percent of old immigrants — those aged 60 to 64 who had arrived in the last five years — were working, said Steve Camarota, research direct at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Among the many post-2005 immigrants older than 65 in 2011, “31 percent were on Medicaid, 14 percent received food stamps, and 8 percent received cash welfare payments,” he said.

Census data show that immigrants’ use of those welfare programs is roughly triple the use by native-born Americans, who usually have worked for decades to build their own wealth, he said.

For example, among native-born Americans aged 65 or older, eight percent use Medicaid, 6 percent get food stamps, and 2 percent get cash welfare, Camarota said.

The bill adds up to a cost of $300,000 to $400,000 per older immigrant, or roughly $18,000 per year, said Robert Rector, an immigration specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

At that cost, the 130,424 older immigrants admitted in 2011  will cost almost $40 billion over the next few decades.

The bulk of transfers are made via the Medicare and Social Security Income programs, partly because few older immigrants work long enough to qualify for Social Security payments, he said.

“The low rates of work and high welfare use of immigrants who arrive at older ages is NOT some kind of moral defect on the part of immigrants,” Camarota said.

“It simply reflects their age, their having come to a new country, and the existence of a well developed welfare state in this country,” he said. But “if you want to admit immigrants who are going to be self-sufficient, you will have to move … towards a [immigration] system that selects relatively young immigrants who are highly educated,” he said.

Other immigration reform advocates were more blunt.

“The U.S. gains little when admitting a 62 year-old man,” said Kristen Williamson, a spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

“Our immigration system should serve the national interest.. [which] means admitting individuals with skills the U.S. is lacking,” she said, adding that “the current system based on family reunification puts the interest of immigrants above Americans.”

Older immigrants “may bring some comfort to their own immediate family, but they not going to contribute to the economy, and are essentially another hole in the bottom of a sinking boat,” said Rector.

“The U.S. taxpayer really can’t afford this,” partly because the U.S. is already borrowing more than $1 trillion per year, he said. Taxpayers “can’t afford an inflow of dependents from the third world… there’s really no way to argue against that,” he added.

However, immigrant lobbies oppose curbs on family reunification green-cards.

The League of United Latin American Citizens “supports ‘Comprehensive Immigration Reform,’ and that does include [residency] for the older Americans here for 20, 25 years… [and] all people that would want to unify with their [immigrant] families,” said Paloma Zuleta, a LULAC spokeswoman.

Questions about the costs and benefits of older immigrants “are technical and in-the-weed matters,” she declared.

However, those older immigrants are not in the weeds for the Obama campaign, which is working hard to maximize support among immigrants.

When Pedro C. arrived at the Obama campaign’s site, Wells made sure to highlight his support for Obama.

“I support the President because I can relate to him,” said Pedro C., according to a translation provided by a Latino volunteer named Angeles, said Wells’ post.

“The President, like myself, came from nothing. Nothing was handed to him. Now look at him — he is the President of the United States of America. Now that is storybook. That is why the President gets my vote,” Pedro said, according to Wells.

“Join Pedro, Angeles, and other supporters in your community — sign up to volunteer, no matter what language you speak, or join Latinos for Obama today,” concluded Wells’ post.

Follow Neil on Twitter