[Many thanks to David Lewis for bringing this item to our attention.] Suzanne Carlson (Virgin Islands Daily News) writes that “Biden says territorial residents deserve equal treatment under federal programs.”
President Joe Biden has issued a statement that the U.S. Justice Department’s defense of continued discrimination against residents of U.S. territories in federal programs is “inconsistent with my Administration’s policies and values,” but said it’s up to Congress to amend the existing laws.
Last September, the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump sought review of United States v. Vaello Madero, a 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that the denial of SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico is unconstitutional.
The court granted review, and the Justice Department filed a brief Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court, “arguing that Congress has the power to deny otherwise eligible U.S. citizens in the territories access to Supplemental Security Income benefits based solely on where they happen to live,” according to a news release from Equally American, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of citizens living in U.S. territories.
Biden’s statement made it clear that “the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences. This practice is critical to the Department’s mission of preserving the rule of law.”
But the law itself needs to change, Biden said, and “I believe that Puerto Rico residents should be able to receive SSI benefits, just like their fellow Americans in all 50 states and Washington D.C. I call on Congress to amend the Social Security Act to extend these benefits to residents of Puerto Rico,” according to the statement.
Biden’s proposed 2022 budget calls for “moving toward parity” in U.S. territories for “critical federal programs including Supplemental Security Income,” as well as addressing disparities in Medicaid funding and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“These steps, along with the American Rescue Plan, which included an enhanced Child Tax Credit for families and a permanent federal match expansion to the Earned Income Tax Credit program, will provide families in Puerto Rico an equal chance to get ahead. As I’ve said before, there can be no second-class citizens in the United States of America. My administration will work with members of Congress to make these legislative fixes a reality,” Biden concluded.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time an American President has ever expressly called for an end to second-class citizenship for residents of the Territories, which has the potential to be a very big deal,” Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American, said in a statement. “Drawing this kind of clear line in the sand should help create the kind of political momentum needed for Congress to finally act on these long-standing issues. The political consequences if the President and Congress fail to act could be significant, with the Puerto Rican diaspora likely a significant force in both the upcoming mid-term elections and again in 2024.”
According to Equally American, José Luis Vaello Madero began receiving SSI disability benefits in 2012 after he became afflicted with severe health issues while living in New York State. The following year, he moved from New York to Puerto Rico to help care for his wife, who also had significant health concerns. Not realizing his change in address meant he was no longer eligible for SSI, he did not question when his benefits continued.
In 2016, after Vaello Madero applied for retirement benefits, the Social Security Administration realized he now lived in Puerto Rico and ceased payments. In 2017, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit invoking a criminal statute against Vaello Madero to recover the $28,081 in SSI benefits he had received while he was a resident of Puerto Rico.
After the court appointed pro bono counsel, Vaello Madero argued that SSI discrimination against residents of U.S. territories violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause. The district court and a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed, concluding that discrimination against residents of Puerto Rico with respect to the SSI program fails judicial review under any standard.
“The SSI program is one of our Nation’s most successful social safety net programs, recognizing the inherent dignity of millions of the most vulnerable, low-income Americans who are aged, blind, or disabled by providing them with a basic income. However, while these critical benefits are taken for granted in most American communities, they are not available to otherwise eligible residents of most U.S. territories for no other reason than where they happen to live. This discrimination isn’t just wrong, it’s unconstitutional,” said Weare.