US President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Donald Trump participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia on June 27, 2024 ( AFP / ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS)

Trump, Biden mislead on Social Security in first presidential debate

Undocumented immigrants are generally excluded from US government benefits, despite Donald Trump's claim during the first 2024 presidential debate that President Joe Biden is allowing new migrants to obtain Medicare and Social Security.

"He's destroying Medicare because all of these people are coming in, they're putting them on Medicare. They're putting them on Social Security. They're going to destroy Social Security," Trump said during the debate hosted by CNN in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27.

"This man is going to single-handedly destroy Social Security. These millions and millions of people coming in, they're trying to put them on Social Security. He will wipe out Social Security. He will wipe out Medicare." The claim, which was was echoed and repeated in social media posts on X, was among several false statements Trump made about migrants during the exchange.

Trump's claims come on the heels of a wave of misinformation about immigration, including claims that some new arrivals in the United States can obtain free health care.

Federal law precludes "unauthorized noncitizens" from obtaining government benefits, with a few exceptions such as emergency medical treatment, according to a 2023 Congressional Research Service report (archived here).

Health care

Medicare is a government health program for people with disabilities and those aged 65 and older (archived here). It requires beneficiaries to pay Medicare taxes, generally for at least 10 years.

Some people confuse this program with Medicaid, a federal program for individuals and families that meet income eligibility requirements (archived here). Medicaid is jointly funded by federal and state governments, meaning each state administers its own benefits, services and qualification requirements, although there are some regulations all programs must follow (archived here, here, here and here).

Newly arrived migrants are unlikely to qualify for either health program, according to nongovernmental organizations (archived here and here).

"Speaking broadly, foreigners coming temporarily to the United States from any country and even immigrants who have lived in the US for several years would have very limited access to free health care -- and this would chiefly be emergency care if they were unable to pay for it in an acute situation," Michelle Mittelstadtdirector of communications at the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute (archived here), previously told AFP.

"Temporary visa holders as well as most immigrants with green cards who have less than five years of US residence (there are exceptions for children and pregnant women) are ineligible for federal public health care programs."

Many undocumented immigrants still contribute to the system via payroll taxes, amounting to some $20 billion in 2018, according to the National Immigration Forum.

Social Security

Social Security is a government retirement program that provides benefits to people 62 and older who have worked and paid payroll taxes for 10 or more years (archived here).

Similar to Medicare, some immigrants pay into the system without qualifying for benefits.

A 2013 Social Security Administration (SSA) report estimated undocumented migrants contributed some $13 billion in 2010 (archived here). A 2023 report from the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank favoring low immigration levels, noted that trend "unambiguously benefits the Social Security and Medicare trust funds" (archived here).

Some noncitizens may be eligible to receive Social Security payments, including refugees and those granted parole or legal status. But they still must contribute payroll taxes for a total of 40 quarters, or generally 10 years, according to the SSA (archived here)

Biden misleads on Trump's plan

Trump was not alone in making misleading claims about government benefits during the first presidential debate.

Biden claimed Trump "thinks that there's plenty to cut in Social Security. He's wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare, both times."

While Trump has previously made comments suggesting he might cut these programs, his 2024 campaign says differently.

"Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security," his website says (archived here).

Read more of AFP's reporting on misinformation about migration here and the 2024 US election here.

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