Group claims Mexicans, not Americans, protected from Social Security cuts

Despite the time of year or political season, the topic of Social Security is always at the…

Georgia (Oct 15, 2012)

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Despite the time of year or political season, the topic of Social Security is always at the forefront of discussion, specifically among seniors tracking the status of the program and of their benefits.

In 2021, interest from investments will stop covering the cost of the program, which provides benefits for 55 million people. The fund is projected to run out of money by 2033 – three years earlier than predicted last year, according to the federal Social Security Administration’s 2012 report. Various options have been bandied about in Washington to keep the program afloat longer, including cutting benefits and removing income tax caps to funnel more money into the system.

The Senior Citizens League, an Alexandria, Va.-based, nonprofit advocacy group for seniors on issues including Social Security, Medicare and veteran and military retiree benefits, seized on the Social Security debate in a September mailer to members. A reader sent PolitiFact the mailer and asked us to examine the claims made by the organization.

TSCL’s latest mailer warned about international Social Security agreements, called totalization agreements, that coordinate the U.S. Social Security program with comparable programs of other countries. The totalization agreements prevent workers in one country from paying dual national retirement system taxes when working in another country, and the pacts also help fill gaps in benefit protection for workers who have divided their careers between the United States and another country.

The U.S. has these types of agreements with about two dozen countries. A pending agreement with Mexico was signed in 2004 but has not yet been adopted[this is repeated later]. TSCL says it retained a law firm to study the U.S./Mexico agreement and, "They believe if the Agreement goes into effect, the millions of Mexican citizens who will become eligible for Social Security benefits may have a far stronger claim to benefits and protection against cuts than U.S. citizens!" as reported in the mailer.       … 

Previous PolitiFact checks found that there were no plans in Congress to allow illegal immigrants to collect Social Security benefits, even though many pay in the system. They could receive benefits only when and if they became legal.

But would Mexican citizens working in the country legally have greater protection from future cuts than U.S. citizens?

To break down the issue, we started at the beginning. The totalization agreement with Mexico has not yet been adopted by both countries, and there are no ongoing negotiations, according to a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration.

We asked the administration for the number of workers who would be covered by the agreement with Mexico, but received no response. Barbara Neuby, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University who has been researching world pension changes, estimated the possible number of Mexicans covered under this agreement at around 1 million.

Those are "people who have paid into this [Social Security] system, those who are here [in the United States] legally," Neuby said.

Social Security benefits are not a contractual right and can be changed by Congress, a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Fleming v. Nestor, established. But the TSCL claim that the totalization agreement would give Mexican citizens stronger claims to benefits and protections against cuts doesn’t hold up, according to experts on the issue.

The agreement is based on U.S. law, and that covers every beneficiary, Neuby said. For citizens of Mexico to be treated differently than U.S. citizens, Congress would have to create an exclusion for them, she said, a move that would be "political suicide."

"If Congress cut the U.S. benefits and not the Mexican citizens’ benefits, the people in Congress would be chased and would probably be shot," Neuby said, adding that such a move would be "political suicide" for Congress members.    

While it is true that Congress can cut Social Security benefits, the claim that the pending totalization agreement would better protect Mexican citizens from benefits cuts is not accurate. The pending agreement has not been approved by the United States or Mexico, but to exclude some citizens from any cuts would require an exemption by Congress that is highly unlikely.

We rate the claim False. 



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