... US Benefits for Mexicans

Mexico's President Vicente Fox long has pressed the US to relax immigration rules between the two countries. But Sept. 11 intervened, and now tighter, not looser, borders are the order of the day in fighting terrorism.

Enter a new proposed US-Mexico agreement that will synchronize, or "totalize" (a government finance term), the retirement programs of both countries. Among other things, it would allow full access to their benefits for Mexican employees working legally in the US who've paid into the US Social Security system.

Call the accord just an appeasement bone President Bush can throw to Mr. Fox in lieu of creating a more porous border, but it's a pretty big bone. And well deserved, even though critics have their concerns.

The proposal could add an additional 162,000 people to the Social Security roster in the first five years of implementation. And cost estimates for that range from $720 million to $1 billion annually. (Already, there's talk of an addition to the US Embassy in Mexico City just to handle some 37,000 claims anticipated in the first year alone.)

As the baby-boom generation retires, the Social Security system faces the possibility of a shortfall. Boomers getting ready to retire won't like to hear that benefits are going to citizens of other countries working in the US. And the GOP will likely be accused of courting Hispanic votes with the move, even as it attempts to placate Fox. But Democrats run a risk in raising that issue; it could alienate their support among Hispanics.

But of course, Mexicans who've paid Social Security taxes in the US should be entitled to such benefits, even though the move may carry more than a little political liability.

Indeed, the US has numerous such agreements with other countries. It pays some 94,000 citizens from other countries Social Security benefits, to the tune of $184 million annually.

Even if the costs amount to a full $1 billion, that's a drop in the bucket of the overall $372 billion in Social Security benefits currently paid to some 46 million recipients.

This proposal is more than just a good-faith gesture. It stands to help square the books with those Mexican citizens who already are working legally in the US, and paying taxes.

And it would be a further acknowledgment of the ever-increasing connections and interdependence between the two nations.

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