Flaws Equal Fraud in Immigrant Aid

September 07, 1995

The Social Security Administration has a perverse tendency to run its programs so badly it sets up a public backlash hurtful to the very people it tries to benefit. The latest confirmation of bureaucratic mess is a General Accounting Office report on massive fraudulent payments to non-U.S. citizens, some of whom are coached by unscrupulous middlemen to fake disabilities.

As The Sun reported after a nine-month investigation of the SSA's Supplemental Security Income program, federal authorities at the Woodlawn-based federal agency have known of serious shortcomings for years but have done little to correct a worsening situation. Because a loophole in the law permits aliens to apply for SSI benefits the moment they set foot on American soil, new congressional attention to this subject could fuel a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Only this week, President Clinton warned citizens that "we should never, ever, permit ourselves to get into a position where we forget that almost everybody here came from somewhere else." His speech in California, where Gov. Pete Wilson has made an anti-immigrant theme the touchstone of his presidential campaign, contrasted with Senate Republican leader Bob Dole's call for legislation making English the nation's only official language.

If immigration policy becomes a partisan issue, the chief sufferers would be legal aliens who work and pay taxes and yet are denied benefits available to U.S. citizens. And why? Because government mismanagement has made cheating so easy the general public rebels. With budget pressures forcing a rollback on scores of government benefit programs, immigrants become an inviting target. They are blamed for job scarcity and stagnant wages.

Officials at Woodlawn are quick to say lack of enforcement and oversight personnel is responsible for the fraud affecting many parts of the SSI program. But the Social Security Administration itself has been slow to adopt new technology and improve communications with state agencies to prevent even obvious abuses. Congress is in the process of insisting on a needed crackdown that would remove an estimated 160,000 of 700,000 immigrants from the SSI rolls. It would be a shame, however, if bureaucratic shortcomings were to lead to legislation that punishes the innocent.

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