Q & A
Ask Rusty – Do Immigrants Get Social Security Benefits
Dear Rusty: I am 90 and a long time Social Security recipient – I signed up at age 62, which I now know was not wise, but I digress. We see from various sources that immigrants, legal and illegal, get Social Security benefits merely by attained age, regardless of contributions. Is that true? Signed: Curious Nonagenarian
Dear Curious: Rest assured that illegal immigrants (or “illegal aliens,” “undocumented workers” or whatever one chooses to call them) are not entitled to collect Social Security benefits. It is, however, possible for legal immigrants to collect Social Security benefits if they have individually earned the right to do so, including those who are the legally-present dependent (spouse or child) of someone who is collecting Social Security benefits. By “legal immigrant” I mean those who have immigrated to the United States and have applied for and received either a Permanent Resident Card (“green card”) or who have subsequently acquired U.S. citizenship. It’s also possible to obtain an “Employment Authorization Document” which grants a foreign citizen temporary authority to work in the U.S., mainly used by citizens of other countries who work in the U.S. (typically those working for an international corporation which has a U.S. presence). In all cases, however, only legal residents who work, earn, and contribute sufficiently to Social Security from their earnings, or who are a legal dependent of someone who is collecting Social Security, can receive Social Security benefits.
The criteria for Social Security eligibility are very strict and those without legal U.S. residency status are not eligible to collect benefits. Especially on today’s social media outlets, we often see uninformed people espousing the belief that illegal immigrants enjoy access to Social Security benefits which is simply not true. That’s not to say there are no instances of fraud, but rest assured that those cases are vigorously sought and eventually found and prosecuted by Social Security’s Inspector General’s office.
FYI, there is another category of federal benefit known as Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) which has somewhat different eligibility criteria but still requires either legal residency as I’ve defined above, or another special residency status which defines them as a “qualified alien” (e.g., certain Indian tribes, refugees and those granted asylum, victims of human trafficking, etc.), as defined by the federal government. SSI is, essentially, a general disability benefit for needy seniors, minors, and disabled adults with very little income and very few assets. Federal SSI benefits are paid from the general Treasury, not from Social Security funds, and do not detract from Social Security’s finances. SSI is administered by each state, which usually provide other assistance in addition to the relatively small federal monetary benefit ($841 per month for 2022).
As you are undoubtedly aware, all U.S. States have separate laws which may provide benefits to all state citizens, regardless of their federal residency status, but that is entirely outside the realm of Social Security and does not affect Social Security’s financial structure. To receive Social Security benefits, one must have either earned the right to do so by contributing sufficiently to the program or be the legally present dependent of someone who is (or was) collecting Social Security and meet all other eligibility criteria for the benefit claimed.
Regarding your decision to claim at 62, remember that life expectancy is always an unknown factor and deciding when to claim always includes a large degree of uncertainty. We should all be comfortable knowing for certain that Social Security will be there for us until the end.