Puerto rico government

Court upholds exclusion of Puerto Ricans from benefits program

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court has upheld the differential treatment of Puerto Rican residents, ruling that Congress was within its power to exclude them from a benefits package available in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The court ruled Thursday by an 8-1 vote that disqualifying Puerto Ricans from the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides benefits to elderly, disabled and blind Americans, does not unconstitutionally discriminate against them.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, was the lone dissenter.

Writing for the court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh said the court was bound by a pair of prior rulings that already upheld federal law that created the SSI and excluded Puerto Rico and other US territories from it. Congress added later in the Mariana Islands.

Puerto Rico has been a US territory since the Spanish-American War of 1898 and its residents are US citizens. They can vote in the primaries, but not in the presidential election, and have limited representation in Congress. Many also pay no federal income tax.

Kavanaugh wrote that “just as not all federal taxes extend to residents of Puerto Rico, neither do all federal benefit programs extend to residents of Puerto Rico”.

Dissenting, Sotomayor replied, “In my view, there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others. To judge otherwise, as does the Court, is irrational and contrary to the very nature of the SSI program and the constitutionally guaranteed equal protection of citizens.I respectfully disagree.

The decision outraged many Puerto Rico, including Governor Pedro Pierluisi, who said statehood was the only solution to Puerto Rico’s second-class status.

“The decision (…) confirms once again that the territorial status of Puerto Rico discriminates against the American citizens of the island and allows Congress to do what it wants with us,” he said. said in a statement.

Pierluisi noted that Puerto Rico also receives unequal treatment when it comes to Medicaid, Medicare and other federal programs.

Meanwhile Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress and a member of Pierluisi’s pro-state party, called the exclusion “unbelievable discrimination” that keeps more than 300,000 people in extreme poverty.

Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, the Puerto Rican resident at the center of the case, began receiving SSI payments after suffering a series of strokes while living in New York.

Payments continued in his New York bank account even after he returned to Puerto Rico. When he notified the Social Security Administration, the payments stopped, and then the government sued to recover more than $28,000 to which he was not entitled.

Lower courts sided with Vaello-Madero, ruling that Puerto Rico’s exclusion from the SSI program is unconstitutional. In a similar case in Guam, a federal judge recently ruled that residents of that Pacific island should also be able to collect SSI.

The Justice Department initially filed its appeal against a ruling by the 1st United States Circuit Court of Appeals during the Trump administration, but continued the case even after President Joe took office. Biden.

The Biden administration has said it supports changing the law to expand SSI payments to Puerto Rico. He included a provision in his Build Back Better proposal to make residents of US territories eligible for SSI payments, but the legislation is stalled in Congress.

A separate program, Aid for the Aged, Blind and Disabled, covers residents of the territories, but it has stricter eligibility requirements and pays less generous benefits than SSI.

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