TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who's running for Senate as an independent, said Friday that providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants will help keep Social Security solvent — an idea he favors over his opponent's suggestion to raise the eligibility age for benefits.
Crist told The Associated Press there are as many as 14 million illegal immigrants in the country as part of an underground economy. If they paid into the Social Security system, it would help increase the worker-to-retiree ratio.
"It's certainly worth a very good debate and research," Crist said. "If there are people here that aren't paying into the system, which everyone agrees there are, that's in essence a form of fraud on the system."
The idea would be to provide a path to citizenship similar to the failed immigration overhaul proposed by President George W. Bush, former Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Crist said he doesn't support amnesty, but rather an "earned path to citizenship." Illegal immigrants would have to apply for citizenship and be placed in line behind people already seeking it.
Crist was running as a Republican until deciding last month to run on his own after falling badly behind tea party favorite Marco Rubio in primary polls. The governor switched his voter registration to no party affiliation this week.
Rubio has proposed raising the age of eligibility for Social Security benefits for people now under 55, as well as restructuring the formula for increasing benefits to account for inflation.
"I couldn't support either of those, and I think we have to be more innovative," Crist said. "I don't want to punish anyone in order to fix it."
Democratic front-runner Kendrick Meek also opposes raising the age of eligibility.
Crist made his comments after Rubio said he supports a controversial new Arizona immigration law that requires state and local law officers to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally. Rubio previously opposed the law, but changed his position after the Legislature tweaked the language to ban racial profiling.
Republicans lost support among some Hispanic voters during the immigration debate, so Crist may be trying to appeal to Florida's large block of them.