How can international migration be managed to maximize the contributions of migrants and diaspora communities to sustainable development? Earlier this week, the President of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly hosted a “thematic session” that addressed this challenge, one in a series of gatherings in preparation for the adoption in 2018 of a “global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration.”
The session devoted substantial attention to migrant remittances and to the portability of “social security” benefits – retirement, disability, health and others. In 2016, international migrants sent $575 billion to their home countries, including $429 billion to developing states, roughly three times the amount of all overseas development assistance. Like remittances, portable social security benefits have immense potential to alleviate poverty and contribute to development. It stands to reason that growing economic integration and international migration should be accompanied by a substantial increase in benefit coverage and portability. Yet only 23 percent of international migrants – mostly those moving between developed states -- benefit from bi-lateral social security agreements. There is an immense need for more bi-lateral and for multi-lateral agreements that provide for portable benefits.
Portable benefits should also be available to irregular migrants and deportees. Portability is a matter of equity: it speaks to allowing a worker – whose work has benefited a state -- to keep what he or she has earned. Migration can lead to the transfer of skills, ideas, monies, training, education, and (often positive) social norms. Yet the literature also suggests that the lack of portability can impede development by preventing the return of migrants to their communities of origin. For some migrants, the decision is stark: return home and lose benefits, or stay in a foreign country and retain them.
If economic integration is on the rise, so too are mass deportation and involuntary return policies, which begs the question: What happens to the social security benefits earned in developed states by irregular migrants and deportees? The US Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) Earning Suspense File holds $1.4 trillion in uncredited wages. This figure refers to recorded earnings, not to the Social Security and Medicare taxes paid on them. In 95 percent of these cases between 2008 and 2012, the names and social security numbers on the federal W-2 (wage and salary) forms did not match official SSA records. This is because an extremely high percentage of uncredited earnings come from out-of-status workers, who cannot receive these benefits unless they obtain legal status. Moreover, legal immigrants who are deported lose status and, as a result, lose eligibility for old-age and disability benefits. Like irregular migrants, they cannot receive the fruits of their labor unless and until they obtain legal status and are lawfully readmitted, which is a very unlikely prospect in most cases.
Combined, these practices deny persons the benefits they have earned, diminish development in migrant sending communities, and impoverish hard-working persons and their dependents. The global compact should support the eligibility of workers (regardless of status) for these benefits and should support the portability of benefits, including for deportees. As a matter of equity and to obviate the necessity of migration, developed states should also consider channeling social security earnings that cannot be credited to individual workers to development initiatives in migrant-sending states.
Even more important than the ability of social security benefits to move with migrants is the ability of families to move together. It is impossible to envision an immigration system that promotes safe, orderly and regular migration but does not prioritize families, or to think of development in the sense of enlarging freedoms and capacities without recognizing the central importance of family unity. Families contribute immensely to immigrant integration, social cohesion, the protection of members who are at risk, and to the labor markets of receiving states. The global compact should also underscore the need for family unity.