Anatomy of a Fear-Mongering Lie About Immigrants

A headline from Paul Bedard at the Washington Examiner on Tuesday caught my eye. It reads: “Illegal immigrants cited in theft of 39 million Social Security numbers.”

Nearly 40 million Social Security numbers have been stolen and used by illegal immigrants and others to get work, according to agency records obtained by an immigration reform group.

The Immigration Reform Law Institute said that from 2012 to 2016 there were “39 million instances where names and Social Security numbers on W-2 tax forms did not match the corresponding Social Security records.”

The group said that there is a “thriving black market” used by illegal immigrants to get Social Security numbers needed to get a job.

It would first help to know that the Immigration Reform Law Institute is the litigation arm of the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group.

But it was the numbers that initially caught my eye. The suggestion from the initial report is that, “39 million Americans have potentially had their Social Security numbers stolen by illegal aliens pursuing work in the country during the Obama administration.” The word “potentially” is carrying a lot of weight in that sentence because you’d think that with those kinds of numbers, we’d be hearing a lot more about this problem.

According to the best estimates, there are approximately 11 million undocumented people in this country. If these claims are true, that would mean that every undocumented man, woman, and child in this country would have 3-4 fraudulent Social Security numbers. That seems like a bit of a stretch, doesn’t it?

IRLI claims to have gotten their numbers from FOIA requests to the Social Security Administration:

The FOIA records produced by SSA as a result of IRLI’s lawsuit have shown that, from 2012 to 2016, there were 39 million instances where names and Social Security numbers on W-2 tax forms did not match the corresponding Social Security records.

So they found 39 million mismatches and jumped to the conclusion that they were all the result of Social Security fraud by “illegal aliens.” No wonder Paul Bedard jumped on that story. But if he had done a little homework on previous reporting at the Washington Times, he might have run across this information in an article by Jan Ting:

Many “mismatches” are due, not to fraud, but to inadvertent errors in the tax-reporting forms that the worker supplied to the employer or the employer supplied to the SSA. (A very common error is the use of a married name by a female worker who did not notify the SSA of her name change.)

Who would have thought to check those 39 million mismatches for “inadvertent errors in tax-reporting forms” when you’ve just uncovered a great lie that you can use to fear-monger about immigrants? But really, I’m sure it was just an oversight and we can expect folks at both the IRLI and the Examiner to clear up that bit of misinformation right away, bless their hearts.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.