The General Accounting Office said yesterday the administration has not done the research to justify signing a “totalization agreement” with Mexico, which would allow Mexican nationals including some one-time illegal immigrants to collect Social Security benefits earned during their time in the United States.
Totalization allows citizens of one country to earn credit for Social Security benefits for time they worked in another country. At retirement, the credits from both countries would be “totaled” to calculate eligibility for benefits, and each nation would be responsible for paying a part of the benefits.
The Bush administration last year stepped up negotiations with the Mexican government to try to secure an agreement.
But Barbara D. Bovbjerg, director of education, workforce and income-security issues for the GAO, told the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee that the Social Security Administration has failed to do basic research on Mexico’s ability to cooperate in a totalization program.
“SSA provided no information showing that it assessed the reliability of Mexican earnings data and the internal controls in place to ensure the integrity of information that SSA will rely on to pay Social Security benefits,” she said.
She also disputed the administration’s estimate of totalization’s cost, calling the actual cost “highly uncertain.”
The SSA predicted a first-year cost of $78 million based on an estimate of 50,000 beneficiaries currently living in Mexico and predicted the number of beneficiaries would grow sixfold over time.
Ms. Bovbjerg, though, said those figures don’t take into account the estimated 5 million illegal immigrants from Mexico currently living in the United States or the millions who have lived in the United States but have since returned to Mexico.
The concept of a totalization agreement is not unpopular. All told, the United States has entered into 20 such agreements, ranging from the first, with Italy in 1978, to the most recent, with Australia, in 2002.
But Rep. John Hostettler, Indiana Republican and chairman of the subcommittee, said an agreement with Mexico will be very different from earlier agreements. “None of those countries have public policies that encourage illegal immigration,” he said.
Jo Anne B. Barnhart, commissioner of Social Security, said current law requires anyone receiving benefits from the United States be a legal resident of the country being lived in at the time the benefits are paid.
She also denied reports the administration is trying to change that and allow illegal immigrants in the United States to receive benefits.
“Any totalization agreement that would be signed with Mexico would not have anything to do with immigration,” the administrator said.
But witnesses and lawmakers said the law still allows an illegal Mexican immigrant to earn credits in the United States then return to Mexico and receive benefits from the U.S. government, since he would then be living legally in his home nation.