Let's Shrink the Illegal Alien Population and Save Billions at the Same Time

By David North on November 28, 2018

The usually discussed techniques for lowering the size of the illegal alien population are two in number:

  • Reducing the inflow of illegals, such as by building a wall; and
  • Mandating the departure of others through deportation.

There is a third variable, rarely discussed, that reaches the same goal without coercion and could be something that Democrats and Republicans might agree on: the subsidized and voluntary departure of some of the undocumented and other aging, low-income foreign-born. It probably would require an act of Congress.

I am thinking of a technique for selectively encouraging the emigration of those among the foreign-born who are most likely to become welfare users in the future. It would save billions and billions of federal dollars a year, and some state funds as well.

It is based on, among other things, the fact that most of the illegals are from warmer climates than our own, and reminds me of a conversation I had years ago on this subject with a Jamaica-born resident of the United States who told me of her fond memories of the warmth of that island: "Don't forget, old bones are cold bones."

Hence, the proposed Return to Warmth (RTW) program, which would directly subsidize the departure of numerous foreign-born persons, many of them here illegally, and would indirectly help the economies of the nations from which they migrated. That would be the genial face of the RTW program, which fits with its deliberately friendly name.

Meanwhile, it would prevent large numbers of these migrants from participating in our Medicare program and other (less expensive) income transfer programs, saving billions a year, and thus making RTW attractive to conservatives.

Let's look at some specifics.

In the following table, we show the roughly estimated 2017 per capita costs to the United States of the foreign-born Social Security beneficiaries while in the United States, and while in their home countries. It is drawn from government data easily available on the internet, such as the Medicare budget (which was $720 billion in 2017) and on similar sources for the numbers of beneficiaries.

The table is also based on the fact that many Social Security beneficiaries, including many of the foreign-born, can draw their checks in most of the rest of the world, but would not be able to participate in other programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and Supplemental Security Income. All four require residence in the United States.

Estimated Average Cost per Foreign-Born Social Security Beneficiary in 2017

Federal Program Living in the U.S. Living Abroad
Social Security $8,178 $8,178
Medicare $10,778 0
Medicaid $3,736 0
Food Stamps $1,506 0
SSI $1,198 0
Subtotal $6,440 0
Grand Totals $25,396 $8,178

Note: All data are for FY 2107; we assume about 80 percent of the Social Security beneficiaries will also be eligible for Medicare, and only half of the Social Security people will use each of the last three named programs, so the Medicare figure is 80 percent of the annual average per capita cost of that program, and the other three are shown at 50 percent of the annual average costs, both are conservative estimates.

Given the information above, one might assume that virtually no one would want to take their Social Security benefits abroad. That is not the case.

More than 650,000 Social Security checks are mailed overseas each month and this number (and the percentage of retirees who do this) is slowly but steadily increasing, according to various issues of the of the Social Security Administration's Annual Statistical Supplement. Here are the totals and the percentages of all beneficiaries for three recent years:

2004 431,902 0.91 percent
2008 493,289 0.98 percent
2017 659,454 1.06 percent

During the early 1990s the percentage was about 0.75 percent.

Clearly this is an arrangement that is, slowly, growing in popularity. My suggestion is that we deliberately increase its size.

The evidence, incidentally, suggests strongly that most of these checks are not going to wealthy people who have decided to retire to the Riviera rather than Boca Raton. Average annual payouts of Social Security benefits were $15,208 nationally in 2017, and only $8,178 for those getting their checks abroad. Thus, the overseas checks were only 54 percent of the national average, reflecting the substantially lower lifetime incomes of those who retired abroad. This is not a rich population.

While I cannot document it, I learned some years ago, in a conversation with a SSA staffer, that more than 90 percent of those getting checks overseas were not born in the United States.


The U.S. should create a new program (RTW) to encourage these movements back to the home countries, providing a range of new benefits to stimulate such returns, but designing them in such a way that the returnees will tend to stay returned once they have left.

If the United States can save $17,000 a year on each of hundreds of thousands of people, and all of them will stop making the impact that the rest of us do on the environment, this country will be making major progress, without using any coercion at all. And the savings of some $17,000 a year, per capita, means that it would be appropriate to offer some really enticing rewards to those thinking about leaving the country.

Who Would Qualify? Since a major part of the motivation is to reduce the illegal alien population, such persons would not be disqualified. I would limit it to foreign-born persons who qualify now, or will soon, for Social Security retirement, of whatever civil status, from illegal to citizen. It would only apply to people wanting to return to their native lands, and might not apply to a comparative few whose homes are within, say, 300 miles of the U.S. borders. (These people would be tempted to live secretly in the United States while collecting abroad.)

Dependents of the beneficiary could qualify, at any age, but the principals would have to be 61 years of age or older.

The Reward Package. This has to be enticing enough to encourage Social Security beneficiaries to seek it, despite the basic math outlined above (which many of them might sense, even without knowing the details.) Such a package might include:

  • Retirement benefits at the age of 61, instead of the usual 62;
  • A 10 percent bonus on the Social Security benefit while the beneficiary is abroad;
  • Free one-way plane tickets for the principal and the dependents; and
  • Checks totaling $5,000, half on arrival in the home country, and the other half a year later, but only paid in person, at a U.S. consulate or embassy.

Holy cow, some might say, you are going to be giving some illegals 10 percent more in Social Security for the rest of their lives! Isn't that an extravagant waste?

The 10 percent increase, based on current Social Security data, would mean that the overseas individual would get an additional $818 a year. That would be more than balanced by the Medicare savings of $10,778 a year; maybe we should set the Social Security benefit increase at 25 percent or more.

The monthly checks would have to be cashed in the home country, in person, by the beneficiary, and within 60 days of their issuance. Further, such checks would need to be endorsed by the beneficiary along with a thumb print of that person, and a note on the back of the check indicating the name of the cashier who accepted the check, and the date thereof. Banks that showed a pattern of check abuse would be barred from depositing these checks in the future.

All receiving any part of the bonus package would have to agree in writing to not seek to return to the United States under any circumstances for three or five years; if they did (or their checks were cashed in the United States), the government would halve the future benefit checks until the bonuses had been repaid. If they came back to the United States twice within those years, the beneficiary would be no longer be eligible for SSA retirement checks unless, perhaps, they were citizens, in which case a milder penalty would be exacted. (No one using the RTW benefits would be eligible to apply for naturalization, or any other immigration benefit.)

The benefit package suggested above is not set in stone; it could be altered, but it would have to offer the foreign-born a substantial benefit. Provisions should be made to use tax funds to compensate the Social Security system for its additional costs.

The benefits should be made available to those in deportation hearings, if they were otherwise eligible, thus reducing the backlogs in the immigration courts.

Someone who had received the rewards described above could ask to be excused from the program by voluntarily returning the extra moneys; but this would be rare, and would be available to only those who had been in the United States legally at the time of retirement.

Other Advantages of RTW. Other advantages to the government of RTW would be lowering pressure on energy assistance plans for the poor; on public housing, which in many cities includes special housing for the elderly; and on non-public food banks and the like. In addition, there would be the less obvious advantages of a lower population and less wear and tear on the built environment.

In the specific instance of shutting down Temporary Protected Status for people from some nations, it would ease the departure of the older ones. Perhaps some TPS beneficiaries within a year or two of the RTW minimum age could be given special dispensations.

As for the returnees, the principal advantage to them would be the lower costs of living in the homelands, as opposed to those costs in the United States. There would also be the previously cited warmer weather (for most), the ease of returning to a situation where everyone uses one's native language, and for many, losing the fear of deportation. In short, a win-win situation.

This suggestion takes a long view of the question of migrant utilization of our income transfer programs and would impose some short-term costs on the government (the reward packages) in exchange for steady savings in the future. It certainly would be subject to attempted abuse, but in the long run it would start saving us $17,000 a year times hundreds of thousands of people.

It would be a quiet program, in contrast to the wall and border skirmishes, but it would inevitably lead to fewer illegal aliens in the nation, and lower welfare costs.

Why not try it for a while?