- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2005

The two hot-button issues that President Bush wants to tackle this year — Social Security and immigration — are about to collide.

Two members of Congress will try to block an agreement that the Bush administration signed with Mexico that would allow Mexicans who have worked in the United States, including some illegal immigrants, to receive Social Security payments.

Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., Virginia Republican, will introduce a resolution today calling on the president not to submit the agreement to Congress.

And Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican, has prepared another resolution to block the deal, called a totalization agreement, if and when the administration submits it to Congress.

“This is the flash point between border security and Social Security, and it is a major fault line,” Mr. Hayworth said.

Although the congressmen are approaching the issue as proponents of immigration reform, they are being joined by a seniors advocacy group that argues the president endangers his plans to reform Social Security by pushing for an agreement that would deepen the financial hole in which the retirement program finds itself.

C. McClain Haddow, chairman of the policy council for the Seniors Coalition, said his organization has collected 387,000 petitions from its members opposing the deal with Mexico.

“It’s a double cross that they do not understand, and our members are angry here,” he said.

Totalization agreements allow nations to coordinate tax payments into, and benefit payments out of, their public retirement systems.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) signed the agreement in June with the Mexican government, saying it would mean U.S. companies who employ Americans in Mexico or Mexican companies employing Mexicans in the United States would not have to pay retirement-security taxes to both nations.

In addition, the SSA said, workers who split their time and don’t qualify for benefits in either country could combine their time to earn benefits. The agency said the long-term cost to Social Security would be “negligible.”

But the the Government Accountability Office, in a September 2003 report, said the cost is “highly uncertain,” and Mr. Hayworth said the SSA was skewing the numbers.

“The Social Security Administration has willfully underestimated and mischaracterized the number of Mexican workers who would take advantage of, for lack of a better term, this retirement program reciprocity,” he said. “In fact, millions of Mexicans would be eligible under the notion that if they even worked one day under legal status in this country, all their days of illegality would be counted.

“It may not be the intent of the White House and the Social Security Administration, but the result would be a massive drain on Social Security funds, and that is not the way to begin a debate on strengthening Social Security,” he said.

Mr. Hayworth said he raised the issue with Mr. Bush in a recent meeting, and said, “The president thanked me for my candor.”

The SSA did not return a call for comment yesterday, and a White House spokeswoman said she had no comment on the resolutions of disapproval.

“At this point, it’s with the Social Security commission, and nothing has been sent to Congress,” White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said.

Soon after the administration signed the deal last year, some House Republicans wrote a resolution against the agreement. And Mr. Goode said he raised the issue last year when he introduced an amendment in the House Appropriations Committee to prevent spending any money to pursue an agreement with Mexico. His amendment failed.

But Mr. Goode said this year is different.

“It’s clear both sides, if they want to help Social Security, would join together — Democrats and the administration — and say ‘no’ to totalization,” he said, adding that the agreement is inherently skewed.

“The benefits will flow much more to the Mexican workers than it will to the U.S. workers. So many more of them would be totalized than the U.S. workers being totalized. It will cost the Social Security Administration billions of dollars,” he said.

But Deborah Meyers, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said the benefits paid under totalization agreements are “a tiny portion” of the overall Social Security program.

In 2001, the SSA paid $173 million in benefits to 89,000 former workers living abroad — an average benefit of $162 per month, compared with $825 per month to 45 million Social Security beneficiaries living in the United States.

“The dollar amount right now of the money Social Security pays out is really insignificant compared to the Social Security that goes to U.S. citizens,” she said.

She also said immigration-control proponents should not try to mix the issues.

“I think it’s a little unfair of people who are opposed to immigration to try to use Social Security agreements to single out Mexico,” she said. “This is not simply an immigration issue. The United States and Mexico have economies that have become very intertwined, and in many ways, this reflects that.”

The United States has signed 20 totalization agreements with other nations, including most of Western Europe. But opponents of the agreement with Mexico said it is different from the others.

Mr. Haddow, former Health and Human Services chief of staff, said the key difference is the role that illegal Mexican labor plays in the American economy.

“These folks aren’t paying taxes into the Mexican system, and they’re only paying into the American system at the lowest wage rate,” he said.

Mr. Haddow said his members are likely to support Mr. Bush’s plans on Social Security, which makes their opposition to totalization that much more important politically.

Still, he said his organization is not necessarily happy about being mixed up in an immigration debate.

“We’ve gotten drawn into an area we’re very uncomfortable with, and that’s immigration reform,” he said, adding that his organization thinks broad immigration reform that accounts for those living here illegally now is probably necessary.

But he said the government shouldn’t use Social Security as “a piggy bank to send some sort of reward down to [Mexican President] Vicente Fox.”

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