Every year, the Social Security Administration collects billions of dollars in taxes that it doesn’t know who paid. Whenever employers send in W-2 forms that have Social Security numbers that don’t match with anyone on record, the agency routes the paperwork to what’s called the Earnings Suspense File, where it sits until people can prove the wages were theirs, allowing them to one day collect retirement benefits.
The Earnings Suspense File now contains Social Security tax forms that date back to 1937 and are linked to the taxes that were paid on nearly $1.3 trillion in wages. Some of the W-2s in it belong to people who got married and never reported changing their name. Others are people who filled out their tax forms incorrectly. As of 2014, efforts to track these taxpayers down allowed the Social Security Administration to match 171 million tax forms to their rightful owners.
But there are still about 340 million unclaimed tax forms recorded in the file, compared to 270 million nearly a decade ago. A good portion of those forms were filed by employers on behalf of some of the most unlikely funders of Social Security: undocumented immigrants. In fact, illegal immigration is considered largely responsible for the mushrooming of the file, with undocumented workers paying billions in taxes for retirement benefits they will likely never receive.