“If the immigrants all came at 20 and had seven or eight kids, you would see more of a difference,” he said. The average immigrant arrives at age 30, and immigrant women have, on average, 2.1 children, according to the Pew Research Center.
Camarota added that immigrants tend to be poorer than native-born Americans and are therefore more reliant on a wide range of public services. “If you bring in a lot of immigrants who are paying into Social Security but then need all these other social programs — well, then you’re not helping the situation.”
Analysts on both sides agree that increasing the number of highly skilled immigrants would shore up the system more than the Social Security Administration report accounts for, since high-skilled immigrants pay more taxes and spend more than low-skilled ones. Lawmakers said last month that they are considering doubling the number of visas for highly skilled workers, to around 130,000 per year.
But many lower-skill jobs will also need filling as America ages, said Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. For example, about 23 percent of caretakers for the growing ranks of the elderly are immigrants, mostly undocumented, she said. “We simply do not have the adult bodies to take care of the older adult population,” she said.
In addition, many elderly immigrants contribute indirectly to the economy without holding jobs that earn benefits, said Patience Lehrman, national director at Project Shine at Temple University, a program that helps older immigrants.
“A 75-year-old grandmother may not be able to work a 65-hour workweek, but by virtue of the fact that they can babysit the children of their child who is working full time, their child can participate in the GDP,” she said.
Many undocumented immigrants have been paying into the system for years. Since 1996, they have been able to file taxes using a government-issued individual taxpayer identification number; others use fake Social Security numbers. An estimated half to three-quarters of undocumented immigrants pay taxes, Sumption said.
But even if they are allowed to become legal residents and ultimately citizens, their years of taxpaying may not translate into retirement benefits they can use. To be eligible, a person must have paid into the system for at least 10 years, and it is not clear whether, under immigration reform, payment by once-undocumented workers would count retroactively toward Social Security.
If it doesn’t, those now nearing retirement age may have to start from scratch.
Washington Perez, 56, a native of Ecuador, worked in the District for 14 years without authorization before receiving legal permanent residency in 2011. He now works 65 hours a week at two jobs, both of which require physical labor, and he is not sure how much longer he can keep it up.
“It’s not fair for someone who has worked all those years to lose all the benefits that you’ve accumulated over all this time,” said Perez, pausing to chat in the back room of the thrift shop where he was hoisting heavy boxes of books and papers. “Why do they give you a taxpayer identification number if they’re not going to recognize it?”
If he has to start paying into the system from scratch, Perez could be working well into his 70s.
Even with a path to citizenship, it could still be a decade or more before those currently here illegally become legal residents and eligible for services.
Gerardo Flores, 48, worries that he and his wife, who sell Mexican food from a cart in Philadelphia, will never be able to stop working. An undocumented immigrant who has paid taxes since arriving in the late 1980s, he said glumly, “We will work until we die.”
With only a few more years of physical labor left in him, Marcelo said he dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen, running an import-export business and then retiring here. If a path to citizenship is offered, he may become eligible in time to receive Social Security. Otherwise, when he and his wife get too old for physical labor, they will return to Bolivia, where it is cheaper to live and he owns property.
“No way to stay here with no benefits,” Marcelo said.
But he added that he has a feeling immigration reform might change his fortunes.
“I feel happy, really,” he said with a small smile. “There’s something on the way, something is coming.”