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Aging Undocumented Workers Can't Afford to Retire. Will California Help Them?

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A man stands center frame facing right toward the sun with his eyes closed. The light illuminates most of his face. Behind him is a large field with rows of barren trees.
Abraham Salazar stands for a portrait next to vineyards in Healdsburg on Feb. 24, 2023. Salazar, 62, is one of thousands of undocumented California farmworkers who are reaching or past retirement age but must continue working because they are ineligible for Social Security benefits. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

As an orphaned child in rural southern Mexico, Abraham Salazar said he began working when he was just 10 years old. He helped to plow fields and grow corn and beans in the municipality of Constancia del Rosario, in the state of Oaxaca.

After he settled in California’s wine country in 1990, Salazar kept toiling in agriculture. He tore roots and rocks out to prepare fields for planting. He pruned and harvested miles of vines, sometimes during grueling all-night shifts.

Now 62 years old, Salazar said his lower back hurts, sometimes intensely. His heavily calloused hands are becoming arthritic. But he can’t afford to stop working, he said.

“I may be 80 or 90, but I won’t get anything of what I paid into Social Security during all those years of work,” said Salazar, who is turning 63 next week, in Spanish. “Absolutely nothing.”

Salazar is part of a growing wave of hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers who are reaching or past retirement age in the U.S. but who are ineligible to receive Social Security benefits, even though many paid automatic payroll taxes into that system for years.

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A new state bill in California proposes to offer undocumented older adults an economic safety net when they can no longer work. AB 1536 would expand a state-funded cash assistance program, which currently offers individuals about $1,100 per month (PDF), to cover undocumented residents aged 65 and older as well.

“It would give them a monthly stipend, so that they can age with dignity and justice,” said Angelica Salas, who directs the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, after rallying for the bill with its author, Assemblymember Juan Carrillo (D-Palmdale), in Sacramento last week.

“If we do not create a [safety net] system for this population, we are going to have a severe crisis of individuals who have labored and contributed to California, but who will then live in severe poverty in the very same state where they left their youth,” Salas said.

Immigrants who are hired without valid work authorization in industries like construction and food services often provide a Social Security number that is fake, expired or not their own. Most employers in California and other states, who are not required to check the validity of the nine-digit number (PDF), deduct Social Security, federal, state and other taxes from the workers’ paychecks, like with any other employee.

The result is that nationwide, unauthorized immigrant workers contributed a whopping $13 billion in automatic payroll taxes to the Social Security system in a single year, according to the most recent estimates by the Social Security Administration.

Most of that money was a “net positive” to the program’s cash flow, said the agency’s chief actuary, Stephen Goss. That means undocumented workers help fund the monthly retirement checks of U.S. citizens and legal residents, but likely won’t receive the payments when they themselves become seniors.

“It’s tragic, it’s unjust,” said Salas. “They worked hard in some of the hardest and most backbreaking jobs in this country. They contributed. And now they're completely locked out of benefits as they reach their golden years.”

Salazar, who worked in agriculture for about three decades, said it was impossible to save any money on the low wages he earned, while taking care of his family and bills. Getting access to a regular stipend as he ages would be a “huge help” to reach his dream of retiring one day.

“It would be magnificent because we work a lot but don’t get any help,” said Salazar, who recently launched a landscaping business. He hopes that, by working for himself, he’ll earn enough to start saving for retirement.

A man sits on a bet facing toward a window, smiling, with light on his face. He wears a button down collared shirt with a long sleeve underneath and dark pants. Next to him is a cluttered nightstand.
Abraham Salazar sits for a portrait at his home in Healdsburg, on Feb. 24, 2023. Salazar, 62, is one of thousands of undocumented California farmworkers who are reaching or past retirement age but must continue working because they are ineligible for Social Security benefits. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Growing number of undocumented workers reaching retirement age

Roughly 165,000 undocumented workers in California were age 55 and older in 2019, according to an analysis of census figures published Tuesday by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center. That figure is about 680,000 across the country, said the center’s co-director, Edward Flores.

Most of these workers were unable to legalize their status because they arrived in the U.S. in the years after eligibility for the last federal amnesty for undocumented immigrants, which passed during the Reagan administration in 1986.

Flores said the statistics point to a growing demographic wave, and that the country has not yet begun to reckon with the implications.

“What do you do with a significant proportion of our workforce who has been laboring for decades, without access to a social and economic safety net?” he asked. “Now that they are aging and can’t work, they will be in a much more vulnerable position.”

In California’s agricultural industry, the most productive in the nation (PDF) with about $50 billion in annual revenue, almost 85% of crop workers were born in Mexico. Roughly half don’t have legal authorization to work, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Labor. As migration flows from Mexico slowed down in the mid-2000s, the age distribution of California agricultural workers shifted, with farmworkers age 55 to 64 increasing by 64% over the last decade, the UC Merced analysis found.

An aging workforce has left agricultural employers grappling with a shortage of labor for years, especially in areas like the state’s Central Coast, where strawberries, lettuce and other top crops are not harvested mechanically, said Norm Groot, executive director at the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

“We are not replacing those who are aging out of the workforce with new immigrant labor. Nor are we seeing that the children of the current farmworkers are interested in working in the fields,” said Groot. “So we are rapidly coming to a tipping point where we are not going to have enough labor supply on hand to harvest our crops.”

'I still feel like I have the strength to do this work'

One older farmworker who continues to see demand for his services is Asuncion Ponce, who lives in Fresno. The 77-year-old said he still wakes up at 4:30 to calmly drink his coffee and get a ride to seasonal jobs pruning orchard trees or harvesting nectarines, peaches and pears in the San Joaquin Valley.

“I still feel like I have the strength to do this work,” said Ponce proudly, in Spanish. “In Mexico, I was a farmworker and here I’m still doing the same.”

The naturalized U.S. citizen said he worries that the Social Security benefits he’s eligible for won’t cover all of his expenses once he retires. But he acknowledges he’s less physically able to climb ladders up fruit trees or carry heavy crates all day. He’s considering quitting work in two or three years.

Ponce arrived undocumented from Mexico in the early 1980s, but was able to benefit from the Reagan-era amnesty and obtain a green card, allowing him to work legally in the U.S.

A long-time member of United Farm Workers, Ponce continues to attend marches and rallies supporting legislation that could aid workers who migrated to the U.S. in the years after him, such as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (PDF). That said, immigration policy experts say a new path to legalization for immigrants is unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

“It’s just really unfortunate, because older farmworkers who are undocumented and at retirement age or very close, they can't afford to wait,” said Antonio De Loera-Brust, communications director for the United Farm Workers. “The clock is really ticking.”

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