On 21 March 2019, the junk news site Neon Nettle reported that U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) had called for undocumented immigrants to receive Social Security benefits, with American taxpayers footing the bill — a claim that was later encapsulated in memetic form:
Gillibrand, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, in fact said the opposite.
Although the story’s headline read “2020 Democrat Gillibrand Calls for Taxpayer-Funded Social Security for Illegals,” Gillibrand instead said that undocumented immigrants should be provided a path to citizenship and the “right” to pay taxes and to pay into Social Security and other public systems.
Speaking to a crowd during a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa, on 19 March 2019, Gillibrand said: “First, we need comprehensive immigration reform. If you are in this country now, you must have the right to pay into Social Security, to pay your taxes, to pay into the local school system and to have a pathway to citizenship. That must happen.” Her remarks were captured in a Facebook Live video:
The Neon Nettle story wasn’t the first instance in which Gillibrand’s comments were misconstrued. Shortly after she made the statement, Fox News pundit Mike Huckabee mischaracterized them as “Let’s not only give them Grandma’s Social Security, let’s toss in a car and maybe rent for a nice home” during an appearance on the Fox News primetime talk show Hannity.
Huckabee continued, “I hope Kirsten Gillibrand has to go out and talk to people in their 70s who can barely afford food and tell them they’re going to not get their Social Security raised because we’re going to be giving it to people who broke into this country illegally.”
But as the Los Angeles Times pointed out in an analysis of the controversy, Gillibrand wasn’t advocating giving away benefits to supposedly freeloading immigrants. She was talking about allowing immigrants to pay into the system openly “via payroll and income taxes, and to receive the benefits they’ve earned”:
The implicit point of Gillibrand’s words is that many undocumented workers today can’t make those contributions because they have to operate in the underground economy to avoid detection; some are legally barred from receiving benefits even if they have a Social Security number because they never received a work permit in the U.S. If their legal status were somehow regularized and they were given a path to citizenship, they would join the rest of us in the legitimate economy, which would be good for everyone.
Tropes that immigrants are draining the coffers of social welfare programs and bringing in diseases or spiking crime rates are common forms of misleading propaganda. As the same Los Angeles Times analysis reported, undocumented immigrants in fact largely pay into the Social Security system without ever benefiting from it:
In 2013, Social Security Chief Actuary Stephen Goss and his staff estimated that as many as 1.8 million undocumented immigrants (they used the term “unauthorized immigrants”) were working and contributing to Social Security via either someone else’s or a fabricated Social Security number as of 2010. All told, 3.1 million undocumented immigrants were working and paying Social Security taxes.
Those contributions, which Goss estimated at $13 billion in 2010, mostly went into the administrative void. The workers who paid them had virtually no chance of ever collecting benefits either. In 2010, only $1 billion in benefits were paid based on unauthorized work.