The historic surge of illegal immigrants across America’s southern border is fueling a hidden crime spree few in Washington seem willing or able to address: widespread identity theft victimizing unwitting Americans, perpetrated by migrants who need U.S. credentials to work.
An extensive review of government reports, think-tank research, news accounts, and interviews with policymakers and scholars suggests the problem involves millions of people—though measuring it with precision is difficult because of the lack of data provided by authorities.
A telling indication of the scope of the criminality is provided by a little-known government accounting book, the Social Security Administration’s Earnings Suspense File (ESF). It reflects the earnings of employees whose W-2 wage and tax statements have names and Social Security numbers that do not match official records. The total logged in the file has increased tenfold from $188.9 billion at the dawn of the millennium to $1.9 trillion in 2021.
Officials have historically ascribed a “high proportion” of the file’s growth to wages reported by illegal immigrants, and it has swelled alongside their population, which stands at a conservatively estimated 11.5 million today, 7 million of whom are employed. Among those doing so on the books, federal authorities have found that well over 1 million are using social security numbers belonging to someone else—i.e., stolen or “shared” with a relative or acquaintance—or numbers that are fabricated. The data held in the ESF would enable authorities to pursue many of the fraudsters, but the IRS and other agencies responsible for enforcing the law have been reluctant to investigate, and regulations have prevented meaningful information-sharing among them.
This identity-related crime is providing a windfall for the U.S. government. A 2017 study from the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform found that the federal government collects about $22 billion annually in tax receipts from illegal aliens, with the bulk going toward Social Security ($12.6 billion) and Medicare ($5.9 billion)—programs from which noncitizens are ineligible to receive benefits. FAIR estimated that illegal migrants also paid $3.3 billion in federal income tax—a smaller proportion primarily due to illegal aliens’ lower wage levels—and another $1 billion in state income taxes.
In other words, the fraud has the effect of bolstering financially shaky federal programs. In one of the agency’s rare direct statements on the issue, Social Security Administration Chief Actuary Stephen Goss told CNN in 2014 that without “undocumented immigrants paying into the system, Social Security would have entered persistent shortfall of tax revenue to cover payouts starting in 2009.” Leading progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal echoed this observation in 2018, arguing that a “complication of [then-president] Trump’s plans to limit immigration is the effect to our Social Security Earnings Suspense File—money that keeps our Social Security system afloat,” including money provided by “undocumented immigrants.”
Given Washington’s bipartisan willingness to tolerate illegal immigration—whether driven by the multicultural Left or businesses interests seeking cheap labor—authorities have focused on this apparent windfall to the U.S. Treasury. But they have largely ignored the costs. These include the significant strain illegal immigrant households place on public finances, which FAIR and others estimate vastly outweigh their tax contributions, and their impacts on crime and the job market—and on the victims of identity theft.
Reports dating back over a decade show that hundreds of thousands of Americans are unknowingly “sharing” their Social Security numbers with illegal immigrants. Such victims may face tax bills for income they didn’t earn or depleted benefits. Worse, some may experience the burden of bad credit histories and criminal records inaccurately attributed to them after being issued SSNs that illegal aliens had previously invented and used. The overall impact on American citizens is largely unknown because federal, state, and local governments as well as financial institutions have generally failed to notify them, even when fraud is suspected.
The relevant agencies were largely non-responsive to RealClearInvestigations’ requests for updated figures on the size, scope, and extent of the fraud. Nor have lawmakers recently given voice to the victims. Congress seems to have last held a hearing spotlighting the defrauded over a decade ago. Related legislation aimed at reducing Social Security number fraud in employment has typically languished, and many lawmakers whom RCI contacted indicated only a passing knowledge of the issue.
One thing experts do agree on—the problem will likely get worse as more illegal immigrants cross the border and seek work.
The rapidly changing political landscape may be the only thing that could impact the broader trajectory of illegal immigration from which the fraud springs. The populist turn of the post-Donald Trump Republican Party is appealing to working-class voters with a strong interest in curbing illegal immigration. Recent elections also show Hispanics voting for Republicans in significantly higher numbers, in part because of the Democrats’ more liberal border policies.
In the meantime, though, the illegal immigrant population continues to swell.
This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published June 30.