Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent for the state's U.S. Senate seat, is arguing that one of the nation's toughest problems -- extending the solvency of Social Security -- can be tackled by taking on another controversy: creating a pathway to citizenship for the nation's undocumented immigrants.
"Studies show that 11-14 million people are in the country as non-citizens, and if we are willing to have a thoughtful, reasonable pathway to citizenship -- earning citizenship -- then those 11-14 million people can become productive, participating members of the American economy, paying the payroll taxes, helping Social Security going forward, and making America stronger financially," Crist told The Huffington Post in an interview on Friday.
What would actually most benefit the system is the status quo, in fact. Social Security actuaries estimate that in 2007, two-thirds of undocumented workers, or 5.6 million people, were paying into the system, while very few were receiving any benefits. "If for example we had not had other-than-legal immigrants in the country over the past, then these numbers suggest that we would have entered persistent shortfall of tax revenue to cover [payouts] starting [in] 2009, or six years earlier than estimated under the 2010 Trustees Report," said Stephen C. Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration.
Virtually no one, however, is proposing keeping millions of people in the United States with undocumented status simply so they can pay into the system while getting very little in return. The alternatives are widespread deportation or comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship.
A report by the Immigration Policy Center (IPC) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) finds that mass deportation would reduce U.S. GDP by reduce U.S. GDP by 1.46 percent. Comprehensive immigration reform, on the other hand, would increase in U.S. GDP by at least 0.84 percent.
Additionally, even legal immigrants provide a net benefit to the system, according to a 2007 Florida International University report. In Florida, immigrants "contribute nearly $1,500 per year more than they receive" in Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, disability income, veterans' benefits, unemployment compensation, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps, housing subsidies, energy assistance, Medicare and Medicaid. The January study by IPC and CAP concluded that legalizing undocumented immigrants through comprehensive immigration reform would generate $4.5 to $5.4 billion in additional net tax revenue within three years.
Robert Reich, former labor secretary under President Clinton, believes the United States also needs to increase legal immigration. "This is where immigration comes in," he stated. "Most immigrants are young because the impoverished countries they come from are demographically the opposite of rich countries. ... Get it? One logical way to deal with the crisis of funding Social Security and Medicare is to have more workers per retiree, and the simplest way to do that is to allow more immigrants into the United States."
Crist disputed the claim that there is a Social Security "crisis," noting that it is projected to be solvent until 2037 or 2041. Nevertheless, bringing more immigrants into the system would, according to Crist, extend that even further. "I think that would be a responsible way to approach it going forward and realizing that number one, we hope the economy continues to improve -- certainly that's important," he said. "And number two, by the time you get to 2037 or 2041, when expected problems may occur, you've already found a solution by increasing the number of citizens that are paying into Social Security, in a legal way." He added that he would "absolutely" push legislation on this issue if he is elected to the Senate.
Crist has received criticism from both sides of the aisle for his comments. "While Charlie Crist stood on stage with President Bush as he talked about his plan to privatize Social Security and endanger a crucial safety net for our seniors, I helped lead the fight against his disastrous plan," said Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), Crist's Democratic opponent. The Republican Party of Florida replied that Crist will "say and do anything to get elected, even reducing himself to proposing widely debunked policies that would directly hurt seniors and erode the rule of law."
Crist is fighting back by charging that his opponents are too entrenched in party ideology to embrace new solutions. "I have two opponents in this race, and my Republican opponent, former Speaker Marco Rubio, wants to raise the age of eligibility for Social Security and cut benefits," he told The Huffington Post. "My Democratic opponent, Congressman Kendrick Meek, wants to punt it to a commission, and every time they punt it to a commission, they raise the age of eligibility and they cut benefits. So I think they both have it wrong and they're not looking out for Florida's seniors."
Regarding the new GOP Pledge to America, Crist said that it needs to include more specifics, although he said he supports Republicans' call for extending all of the Bush tax cuts. Notably, the 21-page document didn't address immigration reform at all.
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