Amnesty John: If this is straight talk, who needs lies?

By Mark Krikorian on January 7, 2008

National Review Online, January 7, 2008

In Saturday’s debate, John McCain called anyone accusing him of supporting amnesty a “liar.” Actually, he wasn’t bold enough to make the accusation directly, instead cravenly quoting his most notable supporter: “Joe Lieberman said, John McCain has never supported amnesty, and anybody says that he does is a liar, is lying.”

Since McCain has accused me (among others) of lying, let’s see where the real deception is.

The perennial controversy over what to call McCain’s amnesty is silly. Every program in the world that has allowed illegal immigrants to stay has been called an “amnesty.” McCain himself called it “amnesty” as recently as May 2003, when he told the Tucson Citizen “I think we can set up a program where amnesty is extended to a certain number of people who are eligible … Amnesty has to be an important part ...” But once the focus-group results were in, “amnesty” became a four-letter word.

Fine, spinning the language is what politicians do. But what’s important is that McCain hasn’t just vigorously promoted euphemisms for amnesty — he’s engaged in a years-long, Clintonian campaign of amnesty denial, part of what Mickey Kaus calls “a tactic of gruff, testy dissembling.”

But an even more volatile immigration question has arisen in the New Hampshire campaign — Social Security for illegal aliens. This is one of those nightmare scenarios for politicians, combining two third rails into one. And McCain is again trying to employ deception as a way out of it.

Romney has accused McCain of supporting Social Security for illegals, and McCain has responded with more gruff testiness:

"I do not support nor would I ever support any services provided to someone who came to this country illegally, nor would I ever and have never supported Social Security benefits for people who are in this country illegally, that is absolutely false.”

There are two issues regarding Social Security for illegal aliens: 1) Can illegal aliens get Social Security benefits, and 2) can illegal aliens accrue credits toward future Social Security benefits from illegal work. (For more on this, go here and scroll down to "SSA Law Inconsistent on Illegals"; also, this pdf of a Social Security Administration IG report on “Benefits Related to Unauthorized Work.”) McCain’s comment above addresses the first issue, and is a weasely, hair-splitting, depends-what-the-meaning-of-is-is lie, because his bill last year would have made illegals eligible for Social Security as soon as they received the probationary Z visa (no more than 24 hours after submitting an application) — Sec. 606 of S1639 required every amnesty applicant to be issued a Social Security number in a “prompt” fashion, and a legitimate Social Security number (not citizenship) is all you need to be eligible for benefits.

But when you examine the issue of accruing credit toward Social Security benefits, it’s clear that the first part of McCain’s response above is also a lie. Look specifically at his 2006 bill — on May 18, Senator Ensign introduced an amendment to bar work done while illegal from counting toward eligibility for future Social Security benefits for the amnestied illegals (see the amendment and vote tally here). The amendment was not some minor procedural measure that could be misinterpreted, or an omnibus measure with hidden provisions; it was a clear-cut, up-or-down question, — should illegal immigrants committing identity fraud receive Social Security benefits based on that fraud?

Contrary to what you might conclude from all his huffing and puffing on the campaign trail, McCain’s answer at the time was “yes.”

“The whole thrust of the legislation is to grant them Social Security benefits,” a Las Vegas paper reports him having said at the time. He called the amendment “fundamentally unfair” and told his Senate colleagues that “If this amendment is enacted, the nest egg that these immigrants have worked hard for would be taken from them and their families.” His view mattered, not only because it was his (and Ted Kennedy’s) bill, but because the amendment failed by a single vote, 50-49.

The original version of McCain’s 2007 bill would also have allowed illegal aliens use past work to qualify for Social Security, but an amendment passed by voice vote (i.e., without a roll call) changed that (see here and scroll down most of the way down to “Hutchison SA 1415”). However, as Sen. Sessions pointed out in a listing of the bill’s loopholes (see Loophole 19), visa-overstaying illegals who’d been issued a genuine Social Security number when they arrived legally (as workers or students) would have been able to use the credits from work after they fell out of status (i.e., became illegal aliens) toward collecting future benefits. And even Z-visa holders (illegal aliens with pending amnesty applications) who were later rejected for amnesty (if any would have been) would have accrued credits toward future Social Security, using their newfound, “promptly” issued Social Security numbers.

As with the terminological issue, the most disturbing aspect of the Social-Security-for-illegal-aliens discussion is not so much the content of McCain’s policy prescriptions (which we should be happy to debate), but his brazen dishonesty, making “Straight Talk” not just a joke but an Orwellian portent. Real Straight Talk would be to say “Sure, it’s an amnesty, but we don’t really have any choice” or “Of course, I support Social Security for today’s illegal immigrants as part of my amnesty plan.” But to get the nomination, McCain has thrown Straight Talk off the bus.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.