Is immigration reform the answer to the Social Security and Medicare problems?

Proponents of immigration reform are still hoping this will be the year Congress will act, even though there’s growing evidence that lawmakers and maybe the Obama administration are getting cold feet as critical midterm elections approach and anti-immigration forces ratchet up their efforts.

A number of major Jewish groups are among the leading advocates of comprehensive reform, but there are also bitter opponents of any changes that will expand immigration and make it easier for illegal immigrations to become citizens. I get more angry letters when I write about immigration reform than almost any other subject.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has one of the most interesting takes on the issue I’ve read in today’s Talking Points Memo.

Reich argues that expanded immigration is a possible solution to the coming implosion of Social Security and Medicare as the huge Baby Boom generation reaches its dotage and starts drawing more in benefits than current workers are paying in.

“We boomers have a lot to be worried about because most of us plan to retire in a few years and Social Security and Medicare are on the way to going bust,” he writes. “I should know because I used to be a trustee of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. Those of you who are younger than we early boomers have even more to be worried about because if those funds go bust they won’t be there when you’re ready to retire.”

Forty years ago, he writes, there were “five workers for every retiree. Now there are three. Within a couple of decades, there will be only two workers per retiree. There’s no way just two workers will be able or willing to pay enough payroll taxes to keep benefits flowing to every retiree.”

Higher taxes and big cuts in benefits are possible solutions, but both will be politically explosive; don’t look for a scared, hyper-partisan Congress to consider either.

Reich’s answer: more immigration. Most immigrants are young, which means that if they can get jobs, they’ll be working and paying into the system for decades.

Sure, he says, many fear that immigrants will make it even harder for Americans who are unemployed to get jobs, but he says that will change as the American economy recovers.

“Get it?” he concludes. “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. Immigration reform and entitlement reform have a lot to do with one another.”

You can bet groups like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), at the forefront of the immigration reform effort, will be looking at how they can use that argument in their lobbying.

Still, my guess is that immigration reform is going nowhere in an election year when “tea partiers” are just about the loudest political voices around and congressional incumbents are scared stiff. Come to think of it, I’m hearing less and less on the issue from Jewish groups other than HIAS.


About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.