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One of the ironies of the challenging financial future faced by the Social Security Administration is this seldom-discussed fact: Undocumented workers contribute about $13 billion per year to the Social Security Trust Fund, and only get back a small fraction, adding a bit of black ink to a balance sheet in sore need of a boost. As President Obama mulls whether and when to enact executive orders that would affect the status of up to 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, these Social Security payments are a proxy of sorts for the potential power of these workers who now stand in the shadows of the economy.

These immigrants are often accused of creating outsize social services costs, but in this important instance the opposite is true. Undocumented workers using fake, invalid, or borrowed Social Security numbers are subject to payroll taxes but usually receive nothing back. The extent of their contributions hints at the vast scale of the underground economy — and at the economic benefits that could be harnessed by giving undocumented workers a legal way to move out of it.

The chief actuary of the Social Security Administration recently told Vice News that, out of the estimated 7 million unauthorized workers currently in the US labor force, about 3 million use either false or expired Social Security numbers. The payroll taxes paid by these unauthorized workers go into the Social Security’s “earnings suspense file” — in effect, money without a lawful home. “You could say legitimately that had we not received the contributions that we have had in the past from undocumented immigrants . . . that would of course diminish our ability to be paying benefits for as long as we now can,” the chief actuary told MSNBC. He said undocumented immigrants have contributed $100 billion into Social Security over the last decade.

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Critics may say it is a small price for those to pay to work here illegally. But the large dollars at stake argue for legitimizing more of the undocumented workforce and reaping the economic windfall.