Aging Knows No Borders

Although they contribute $11 billion in taxes every year, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal or state retirement benefits. Older immigrants should be a priority for pro-immigration advocates and policy efforts.

Mural painted on border wall of a gap with a person lying on their back, reaching toward blue sky

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Old age is customarily associated with retirement, vacationing, and enjoying time with grandchildren. But not for undocumented immigrants. If you are undocumented, retirement as a regular part of the life transition is a fantasy. Immigration policies upend the life course as we know it.

According to the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants contribute over $11 billion in taxes every year. Although undocumented individuals may contribute to the Social Security Administration, they are not eligible for the benefits associated with federally funded social pensions. Ordinarily, workers and individuals in the United States benefit from employer-based pensions and retirement investments, accumulated Social Security, as well as income support programs (e.g., Supplemental Security Income) for low-income elderly individuals. Despite this astounding exclusion, aging undocumented people are not a priority for a majority of pro-immigration advocates and policy efforts. They should be.

Not having retirement benefits is a time-sensitive issue for elderly undocumented immigrants. As we age, we all need frequent and distinct types of care. Health concerns are alarming for undocumented people due to their limited healthcare access. They are less likely to see a doctor compared with migrants with a legal immigration status. Protecting the health and well-being of the aging undocumented population is a clear health policy need.

Over half of the undocumented population is over age 35. Quasi-solutions such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) affect a small portion of the US undocumented population.

Though recent news articles acknowledge the problem, few offer ideas for moving forward. And, even fewer note that advocacy in immigration policy is myopically focused on helping young undocumented immigrants, often called Dreamers. Over half of the undocumented population is over age 35. Quasi-solutions such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) affect a small portion of the US undocumented population. Older undocumented adults’ existence and unique challenges are eclipsed by the more popular and palatable cause of undocumented youth (e.g., the Dreamers and the DACA recipients).

Some aging adults may migrate back to their country of origin. However, we can reasonably expect that many will stay in the US throughout old age because of their social, familial networks. In the absence of state-based retirement support, undocumented individuals must rely on their families and communities for financial survival. The lack of financial and healthcare support for the aging undocumented population stands to perpetuate intergenerational transmission of disadvantage, the effects of which might be seen for generations.

There is glimmer of optimism for elderly undocumented individuals. Although federally supported programs continue to exclude undocumented older individuals, states such as California are pushing the boundaries. In 2018, California Senator Ricardo Lara proposed a bill (SB 974) to relax the eligibility for Medicare for California residents, making immigration status irrelevant. Although the bill died in the appropriations committee, it allows us to imagine the possibility that local and state governments as well as advocacy groups and non-profit human service organizations may one day support their undocumented stakeholders.

The aging of undocumented individuals is a matter of health, retirement, and inequality/welfare policy. My research agenda as a doctoral student in sociology explores how immigrant status shapes inequality in older-age. This issue is relevant on the global scale because high-income countries rely on foreign-born labor. As a society, we must include the plight of older immigrant adults in policy conversations to ensure that their health, financial stability, and welfare are prioritized. Just like your grandparents and your parents, elderly immigrants deserve the opportunity to retire.

Feature image: C-Monster, Border wall Tijuana, used under CC BY-NC 2.0