By: Hannah Bossert
January 29, 2023
The nine digits comprising one’s Social Security Number assist residents of the United States in obtaining employment, social benefits, identifying documents, tax credits, and more. For noncitizens, obtaining a Social Security Number creates the opportunity to access these benefits; however, not all Social Security Cards are created equal. In the United States there are three types of Social Security Cards: unrestricted, employment only, and non-employment.Unrestricted cards, issued to citizens and lawful permanent residents (colloquially known as “green card holders”), provide Social Security Numbers that allow individuals to pay their taxes and obtain as many social benefits as they may otherwise qualify for.
By contrast, employment-only Social Security Numbers merely allow the holder to file taxes and gain employment. This type of Social Security Card is typically issued to noncitizens with valid work authorization. However, holding this type of Social Security Card does not provide access to the social benefits available to unrestricted card holders, save for certain noncitizens who may qualify for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). These certain noncitizens only include refugees, those granted asylum, withholding of deportation/removal and conditional entrants; those granted parole for a period of at least one year; Cuban and Haitian entrants; certain abused immigrants, their children, and/or parents; certain survivors of trafficking; and those residing in the United States pursuant to the Compact of Free Association.
Like the employment-only Social Security Card, the non-employment card may issue to only those restricted categories of noncitizens who have been granted access to SSI or other certain benefits that require a Social Security Number like Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (“CHIP”), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”), Foster Care, Adoption Assistance, the Child Care and Development Fund, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. However, these noncitizens are not authorized to work in the United States, and may only use the card to access certain benefits that they are otherwise entitled to. Finally, outside of the Social Security Card hierarchy, the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (“ITIN”) permits noncitizens to pay taxes regardless of their immigration status. This makes it the most common method for tax filings by undocumented noncitizens and does not confer any federal benefits whatsoever. Of importance, though the ITIN and non-employment Social Security Cards do not confer legal authorization for employment onto noncitizens, many noncitizens holding these numbers do indeed work.
In the United States, noncitizens must pay taxes if they are lawful permanent residents or a “resident alien” whose gross income for the year is above the minimum threshold and qualifies under the substantial presence test. This test states that a noncitizen who has been physically present in the United States for at least thirty-one days during the current year and 183 days for the past three years (including the current and two preceding years) is a “resident alien” for the purposes of tax filing. Effectively, 183 days of continued presence in the United States places noncitizens on the hook for tax payments, regardless of immigration status. However, despite how quickly a noncitizen may qualify as a taxable resident, noncitizens without lawful permanent resident status will wait months, more likely years if ever, to receive the benefits that their taxable income funds.
In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (“IIRIRA”) grouped benefit availability for noncitizens into two groups: qualified and not qualified. Those considered “qualified” include lawful permanent residents and those narrow categories of noncitizens highlighted above. All other noncitizens, even those paying substantial federal taxes to the United States, are considered “not qualified,” and are not eligible to apply for lifesaving social benefits. These benefits require an unrestricted social security number or some very rare form of special permission, but this differentiation is not made on the applications themselves. Consequently, noncitizens issued restrictive Social Security Cards may go through the process of applying for benefits, only to find that their “type” of Social Security number cannot provide them with the services they need.
Without a doubt, noncitizens significantly stimulate the United States’ economy. In 2019, noncitizens contributed nearly $500 billion in taxes overall and approximately $330 billion in federal taxes, with undocumented immigrants alone paying $18.9 billion in federal taxes. Similarly, in 2015, $23.6 billion in income tax was paid through an ITIN.Despite the fact that SSI and Medicare/Medicaid are not available to undocumented noncitizens, this group paid $13.3 billion into the Social Security system and $3.3 billion to the Medicare Fund in 2016. Further, while noncitizens may receive tax credit for their tax contributions upon receiving an unrestricted Social Security Number, many noncitizens will never obtain this, and continue to pay taxes without the exchange of social benefits. Similarly, employment-only Social Security Cards holders who are considered “not qualified” pay substantially without the social support of these benefits that their tax payments fund.
Consequently, the multi-tiered Social Security Card and ITIN system inhibits noncitizens making payments within the same tax brackets as citizens and green card holders from accessing the same benefits. In denying noncitizens who contribute to the economic funds of these benefit programs the ability to tap into them, the United States continues to take from and further destabilize immigrant communities. The country uses the scheme of work authorization and tiered Social Security Cards to restrict certain noncitizens from working while simultaneously refusing them federal support. The scheme lacks humanity and an appreciation for the vast resources that immigrant communities infuse into the United States’ economy. In providing all residents of the United States with an unrestricted Social Security Card, the government will take a meaningful step towards recognizing and rewarding the substantial contributions of noncitizens — at least in a financial sense.
 Types of Social Security Cards, Soc. Sec. Admin., https://www.ssa.gov/ssnumber/cards.htm (last visited Sept. 16, 2022).
 See Williams Gittins, What is an Unrestricted Social Security Card? How Can I Apply for it?, AS (Dec. 3, 2021), https://en.as.com/en/2021/12/04/latest_news/1638574690_361537.html (explaining the difference between an unrestricted and restricted social security card); see also DePaul Law, Social Security Numbers and Cards, DePaul Law, https://law.depaul.edu/academics/experiential-learning/legal-clinics/asylum-immigration/confia/Documents/Social%20Security%20Numbers%20and%20Cards.pdf. (stating that some noncitizens can obtain social security numbers that allow them to obtain public benefits).
 Types of Social Security Cards, supra note 1.
 Tanya Broder, Gabrielle Lessard, & Avideh Moussavian, National Immigration Law Center, Overview of Immigrant Eligibility for Federal Programs (June 2022) https://www.nilc.org/issues/economic-support/overview-immeligfedprograms/#_ftnref1.
 Types of Social Security Cards, supra note 1; see also Broder, supra note 4.
 Types of Social Security Cards, supra note 1.
 American Immigration Council, The Facts About the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) 1, 2 (Mar. 2022), https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org
 See Publication 501 (2021), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information, Internal Revenue Serv. (Jan. 31, 2022), https://www.irs.gov/publications/p501 (noting that in 2021, the threshold gross income necessitating an income tax filing was $12,550 for a single person and $18,800 for a head of household under the age of sixty-five).
 Substantial Presence Test, Internal Revenue Serv. (July 27, 2022), https://www.irs.gov/individuals/international-taxpayers/substantial-presence-test.
 Broder, supra note 4.
 Immigrants and the Economy: Income, Spending Power, and Taxes, Boundless, https://www.boundless.com/research/immigrants-and-taxes/ (last visited Sept. 16, 2022).