Immigrants include U.S. citizens, legal aliens — immigrant non-citizens — and undocumented immigrants with no legal right to stay in the U.S. All of them may be able to claim benefits from the Social Security Administration, depending on their specific circumstances.
Someone born outside the United States can become a U.S. citizen. There are several different paths, but most foreigners follow the federal guidelines for becoming naturalized Americans. Once someone becomes a citizen, the SSA treats her like anyone else with citizenship. She qualifies for the same Social Security benefits as native-born Americans based on her earnings, or on the earnings of her spouse. That includes retirement benefits and disability benefits for those over 65.
The Social Security Administration says legal non-citizens do not have to apply for a Social Security number if they choose not to. A student who's attending school in the United States and not working, for instance, doesn't have to apply for a Social Security number. Only non-citizens who intend to work need a card. Like a naturalized citizen, a foreign worker pays into the system each year he works, earning credits with the SSA. The amount of his benefits is based on the number of credits he earns.
According to the National Immigration Law Center, most undocumented immigrants pay into Social Security, using false or duplicate Social Security numbers. However, they cannot claim any benefits unless they attain legal status. It doesn't always have to be citizenship or permanent resident status.
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In 2014, for instance, President Obama announced an executive action shielding 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. This action doesn't make them citizens, but it allows them to work legally in the United States. That qualifies them to pay into Social Security and eventually receive Social Security benefits.
Benefits at 65
It takes at least 10 years earning credits to qualify for Social Security benefits. The more years a worker puts in before retirement, the greater the benefits she's entitled to. A worker with enough credits can retire as early as 62 with reduced benefits. Full retirement comes between 66 and 67 at the time of writing, depending on the year of birth. At 65 a worker may also qualify for disability benefits or, if her income is extremely low, for Supplemental Security Income. An immigrant can qualify for SSI even if she doesn't have any Social Security credits.
Lack of Time
Immigrants who pay into Social Security don't always earn enough to claim benefits. A 2011 report in the Social Security Bulletin found that the 55 percent of those Americans who never claim benefits are immigrants who don't have enough work history and Social Security earnings to qualify. These include:
•Immigrants who only work occasionally and don't build up enough credits.
•Immigrants who arrive when they're already 50 or older, frequently as parents of American citizens. That leaves them little time before retirement.
•Workers whose jobs fall outside the Social Security system.
The Obama administration has pointed out that immigrants affected by the executive action will need to work a decade before qualifying for retirement or disability benefits.