For undocumented workers on campus, retirement is no sure thing

Victor Hernandez-Jayme

Editor’s note: Names of some individuals in this story have been altered. A few interviews were conducted in Spanish and then translated into English.

For all the years Maria Batarse has put in at the University, an opportunity to retire appears nowhere in sight.

Batarse, an undocumented worker, came to the U.S. in 1988 and works at one of UT’s on-campus dining halls, which one of the University’s subcontractors manages. 

“I’ve been here for a long time,” Batarse said. “I bought a house on the south side 15 years ago. I’ve finished paying it off. I have my kids and everything — they’re all grown up. And I see them struggling, right? Financially, sometimes … and then I think: How I am going to retire? I feel so powerless because I have money saved for my later days but can’t access it, and it’s so unjust for me to burden [my kids] when they are barely starting their lives.” 

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. One aspect of the bill opened the door for the Social Security Administration to transfer fake Social Security credits to a legal account. 

Many undocumented workers obtain employment using fake Social Security cards, and thus pay Social Security as well as Medicare taxes. But unlike everyone else, they do not receive those benefits once they retire. Instead, the money undocumented workers pay goes into the Earnings Suspense File, a special account where unmatched Social Security funds are held, which is then distributed to all other Social Security recipients. 

The file receives between $7 billion and $11 billion per year in Social Security taxes, and it is estimated that almost 75 percent of that amount comes from undocumented workers. 

“We all pay Social Security taxes and our employers pay the same amount we pay for us,” economics professor Daniel Hamermesh said. “For these people, the money that is paid by them never goes to an account that will provide them with benefits. If [undocumented workers] became legalized, as they would under the Obama plan, there is no question that some of that earning suspense money would go for establishing credit for the newly legalized workers, and I am all in favor for that.”

Most of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. work in the construction, service, agricultural and food and drink industries. According to the Department of Homeland Security, there were about 1.8 million undocumented immigrants in Texas in 2010, which made up about 16 percent of the population nationwide.

When it comes to hiring cheap labor, higher education is not an exception. UT’s undocumented workers vary from service clerks, repairmen, gardeners, construction workers, plumbers and electricians that work unlawfully so they can provide for their families. 

Alfredo Moreno is one of those workers; he has worked for UT for more than 13 years, although he first came to the U.S. in 1997 from Zacatecas, Mexico. During his first few years in the U.S., Moreno worked odd jobs in the San Marcos area before moving to Austin in 2000 after he had saved enough money to bring his family to the U.S. 

“When my family came, I saw my son again. [He was a] 6-year-old kid when he got here, 3 when I left — he hardly recognized me,” Moreno said. “I told [him] he had to start going to school even if he didn’t understand a word from the teacher — I told him to try hard. It was tough, tough times.”

Moreno’s son, Emilio, will graduate from Elgin High School in May. Emilio is in the top 10 percent of his class and plans to attend UT to study astronomy. 

If Emilio had graduated last year, he would have also had to obtain a fake Social Security number — like his father — to be able to get a job while in college. Those measures are no longer necessary after President Obama enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in June, which allows, among other provisions, for immigrants over the age of 18 who were brought illegally as children to qualify for temporary-work permits and thus receive Social Security cards.

Law professor Barbara Hines, co-director of the school’s immigration clinic, said she agrees with the notion that those who pay into the system should be able to get something out of it.

“That money belongs to the workers,” Hines said. “It was taken out of their checks and I believe they are entitled to it.”

Hines said the process of obtaining citizenship is not as easy as people make it out to be.

“It’s not simply getting in line as people are talking about it,” she said. “Depending on where you come from, the line can take years. For instance, if you were born in Mexico and are over 21, the average wait for you is 10 years to get a green card. The U.S. government gives 20,000 legal visas for Mexico, for instance. As you can imagine, they run out of them every year.”

Some lobbying groups, such as the Senior Citizens League and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, have stressed the danger that immigrants pose to the Social Security Trust Fund if immigrants are able to collect benefits. Hamermesh said the concern is overblown.

“It’s a lot of money but the program is so big and the solutions so easy that is just not a real biggie,” he said. “A lot of people think [the Social Security System is] going to be broke next year; that’s BS — that ain’t gonna happen. It is going to break in about 20 years but that is so much time, it is so easy to fix that; I am quite sure we will. I am an optimist about this country. I think when there is a real problem we do get our act together.”

Batarse, who came to the U.S. from Santa Rosa, Guatemala, is nearing retirement age. She said she likes where she works, but her future is uncertain.

“Overall I can’t complain. I’m happy to be here,” Batarse said. “But the work is really getting to me. When will I be able to stop working? Every check, I have been paying for my retirement. I file my taxes, like anyone else. I don’t think it’s fair, and it’s not just me who has this problem.”

Published on February 20, 2013 as "The matter at hand".