By Glenn Kessler
“Joe Biden tried to cut Social Security and Medicare for decades. … Now Biden’s promising your benefits to illegal immigrants.”
— Trump campaign ad, airing in battleground states
This is a confusing ad. The core of it is a misleading clip from Biden in the mid-1990s. But the tagline — “Now Biden’s promising your benefits to illegal immigrants” — is a head-scratcher.
The ad cites a Fox News article from 2019 as the source for that claim. But that article recounts Biden saying he would support allowing undocumented immigrants access to health care. (The Biden campaign has a policy position that undocumented immigrants should be able to purchase insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchanges, but without receiving any subsidies.) In other words, it was not about Social Security.
Apparently, the ad is supposed to address a different point — that Biden proposes a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, and thus eventually they would be eligible to get Social Security.
First, let’s look at the misleading clip. Here, the Trump campaign is borrowing a talking point from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his supporters. But the complaint lacks context — and is odd, coming from a Republican.
In the mid-1980s, bipartisan alarm grew over soaring federal budget deficits under President Ronald Reagan. Biden, working with Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), proposed a simple solution: a one-year freeze on all spending, including defense spending and social programs such as Social Security.
Biden pitched it as the “last best chance” to keep deficits from undermining the economic recovery and dropping the country into another recession. He also said it would avoid having to “make other significant changes in Medicare and significant changes in Social Security generally.” The plan was rejected 33 to 65, though more Democrats than Republicans voted for it.
The Trump ad takes a clip of Biden speaking on the Senate floor in 1995, recalling that fight at a time when Republicans had taken control of the House and Senate and were pressing for passage of a balanced-budget amendment. But the ad misleadingly edits the clip to remove the context that Biden called for a freeze on all federal spending, not just Social Security and Medicare. Here’s Biden’s full statement, with quotes in the ad signified in bold.
“When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once. I tried it twice. I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.”
Under our guide to manipulated video, this type of deceptive editing is known as omission. What’s the evidence for “Biden’s promising your benefits to illegal immigrants?” It’s pretty technical — and slim. It also involves a bit of ancient history. People only earn Social Security benefits if they pay into the system. (Social Security is designed to provide workers with a basic level of income in retirement, as well as disability pay and life insurance while they work.)
The benefits are progressive, meaning lower-income workers get a relatively better deal than higher-income workers; however, workers making above a certain salary ($137,700 in 2020) don’t have to pay as much of their income into the system, though their benefits are capped, too. The benefits are inflation-adjusted after initial receipt, a feature that is almost impossible to find in the U.S. annuity market.
The suggestion that some other worker, let alone illegal immigrants, can receive “your benefits” is simply wrong. Your benefits are established under the law, depending how long you have worked and for how much. Maybe the ad means “the same benefits,” but as phrased it is misleading.
Biden has called for a path for citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants — a standard position for a Democrat. If these people ever become citizens, they too would be eligible to earn Social Security benefits.
Undocumented workers currently are not eligible for Social Security. Yet with few exceptions, workers in the United States must pay a portion of their earnings to Social Security, which is matched by their employer. Thus workers in the country illegally who have fraudulent or unauthorized Social Security numbers are paying into the system but do not get any benefits.
Until the law was changed in 2008, the Social Security Administration would process claims for credit for those payments in benefit calculations if a formerly illegal immigrant became a legal resident — and the worker could prove he or she had made payments to the Social Security system.
When this issue was being debated in the Senate in 2006 and 2007, Biden voted to kill the amendment banning the policy once, voted against a procedural motion to block it another time and then was absent the day it was added to a spending bill. In 2013, Biden described it as “just mean” that “even if you’ve been working and paying into Social Security once you come out of the shadows and you are on the path to citizenship you don’t get credit for all the money you paid to the government.”
As a candidate, Biden does not appear to have taken a position on this issue. So there is not much of a “promise” that can be found.
The Trump campaign also points to Biden’s support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, established under Obama for the so-called Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. After paying taxes for 10 years, like all other Social Security taxpayers, the Obama White House said, Dreamers would become eligible for Social Security. The Social Security actuary determined that the long-term actuarial balance of the Social Security Trust Funds would be “improved slightly” because of the additional payroll taxes paid by DACA workers. (Trump has sought to terminate DACA.)
“Joe Biden has not put forward a policy that entitles undocumented immigrants to Social Security benefits,” a Biden campaign aide said. “Joe Biden is in support of helping families stay together by providing a road map to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in our nation. American citizens are entitled to accessing Social Security benefits that they have already paid into.”
“There is no question that Joe Biden has openly pledged to provide government benefits to illegal immigrants, including student loans and access to his government-run health plan,” Ali Pardo, the Trump campaign’s deputy communications director, said in an emailed statement. “Social Security is no different. Biden supports reinstituting the unconstitutional DACA and DAPA programs, which Social Security’s Chief Actuary and the Obama White House said would make illegal immigrants eligible for Social Security. Unlike Biden, President Trump will always protect Social Security and the seniors who rely on it.”
The Pinocchio Test
Overall, the ad is confusing. It never mentions Biden’s support of a pathway to citizenship and cites a news article about another issue, but supposedly that’s the message. We suspect the Trump campaign was trying to shoehorn illegal immigration into an attack on Biden’s Social Security record but did not quite pull it off.
Once undocumented immigrants become U.S. citizens or permanent residents, under the law, they eventually will be eligible to earn Social Security. Dreamers covered under DACA were also allowed to become eligible, which the Social Security actuary said would improve the long-term financial health of the program, allowing it to continue to pay full benefits. Technically, DACA recipients are still in the United States illegally, though most solutions to the issue envision a path to citizenship for people who came to here as children.
The Trump ad takes an old Biden clip out of context. That’s strike one.
Then it claims Biden has promised something — but there is no such promise. That’s strike two.
Finally, it falsely suggests illegal immigrants will receive “your” Social Security benefits. With the narrow exception of DACA recipients, they would not receive the same benefits until they become legal. That’s strike three.