An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Without retirement options, many undocumented farmworkers keep working into old age


A growing number of undocumented workers are reaching retirement age but can't afford to stop working because they won't be able to get payments from Social Security even if they've been paying into the fund. A new state bill in California might help some of these workers retire. From member station KQED, Farida Jhabvala Romero reports.

FARIDA JHABVALA ROMERO, BYLINE: As an orphaned kid in rural Mexico, Abraham Salazar says he started working at age 10, helping to plow fields and grow corn and beans. When he moved to California more than three decades ago, he began working at vineyards.

ABRAHAM SALAZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: Sitting in his studio apartment in Sonoma County, the 63-year-old says that after years of cleaning, pruning and harvesting fields by hand, his wrists are becoming arthritic, and his lower back hurts. Over the years, Salazar has paid automatic payroll taxes into Social Security. But like millions of other undocumented workers, he typically used a number that wasn't his own.

SALAZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: That means that Salazar will never get Social Security benefits. Unauthorized workers contributed roughly $13 billion to that fund in a single year, according to the Social Security Administration's most recent estimates.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: At a rally earlier this month in Sacramento, immigrant advocates called for the passage of a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants aged 65 and older to get monthly state-funded payments of about $1,100 to help them retire.

ANGELICA SALAS: So that they can age with dignity and justice.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Angelica Salas directs the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. She says workers like Salazar, who've given their most productive years to this country, are being treated as disposable.

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 any benefits as they reach their golden years.

JHABVALA ROMERO: The last federal amnesty for undocumented immigrants passed in 1986. Today, there are nearly 700,000 workers like Salazar, who came to the U.S. in the years after eligibility, and they're close to or past retirement age now. More than 160,000 live in California. Those estimates come from the Community and Labor Center at the University of California, Merced. Professor Edward Flores co-directs the center. He says a demographic wave is coming.

EDWARD FLORES: 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, but now that they're aging and now that they may not be able to work, you know, will be in a much more vulnerable position?


JHABVALA ROMERO: Back at his apartment, Abraham Salazar is rushing off to another job.

SALAZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: He says a regular stipend, like what the state bill proposes, would be a huge help to reach his dream of retiring.

SALAZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: Salazar recently launched a landscaping business. He hopes that working for himself will help him to make enough money to save for retirement.

For NPR News, I'm Farida Jhabvala Romero in Sonoma County, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRENT FAIYAZ SONG, "WASTING TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Farida Jhabvala Romero / KQED
[Copyright 2024 Jefferson Public Radio]