Recently, the United States Supreme Court decisively rejected the principle of equality before the law as it relates to Puerto Rico. While its scope seems limited, we must not minimize the far-reaching implications of the court’s 8-1 decision in United States v. Vaello Madero.
The case challenged Congress’s exclusion of Puerto Rican residents from the Supplemental Security Income program. This federal program provides critical assistance to those who have the least access to financial security in our communities – seniors, people with diverse ability needs, and those living in extreme poverty.
A 2011 estimate suggested that more than 300,000 Puerto Rican residents would be eligible for SSI. This systematic lack of funding fundamentally limits a people’s struggle for self-determination and self-realization.
The Supreme Court made a fallacious argument to justify this discrimination by appealing to Puerto Rico‘s unique tax status, saying that contributing less is compatible with receiving less.
However, such reasoning does not apply to States which systematically contribute much less than the others. Should states that pay very little federal tax be denied all or part of the program’s access? In this logic, the SSI program, which is specifically designed to offer relief to households in a precarious situation, would pay less to citizens who need it most. On the contrary, the SSI program continues to help those who need it most, precisely because they are unable to contribute.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the lone dissenter, made this irrational logic clear, pointing out that SSI is a program that the federal government administers directly to its citizens — not through states or jurisdictions, regardless of their tax burden. How then, can the court decide to force people like Jose Vaello-Madero to forfeit their SSI benefits if they move from one jurisdiction to another, even though they are already qualified?
Sotomayor’s compelling arguments center on constitutional protections and tests of rationality, in stark contrast to the majority’s use of uneven reasoning and poorly applied precedents.
And yet, if the logic of the court is contrary to the very nature of the SSI program, why did such a clear majority of 8 to 1 support it?
For to affirm the iniquity of the territorial system is to confirm a secular precedent. The Constitution has long been construed through “island affairs” which explicitly allows Congress to disregard the Constitution when dealing with Puerto Rico, crippling the ability of Puerto Ricans to appeal for constitutional protections like a due process and equality before the law.
Judge Neil Gorsuch admits this in his concurring opinion:
“A century ago, in Island cases, this Court ruled that the federal government could govern Puerto Rico and other territories largely without regard to the Constitution. It is high time to acknowledge the seriousness of this error and admit what we know to be true: Island affairs have no basis in the Constitution and are instead based on racial stereotypes. They deserve no place in our law.
The end result is that under these precedents the Supreme Court is authorized to make arguments that can only be deemed reasonable when applied to the colonies, particularly with respect to federal benefits, self-government and legal protections. The court could have taken the opportunity to override this legal framework. Rather, they reinforce it.
The ruling affirms once again that the Constitution and its protections only partially apply to the territories and confirms that a government that rules without consent or principle has a name: colonial. If the U.S. government cannot be persuaded to follow its own Constitution when it comes to territories, it should hold none. Full stop. To continue this state of affairs is to perpetuate law-sanctioned colonialism.
How can Puerto Rican defenders continue their fight for fair treatment? The highest court in the land has just told them that as long as Puerto Rico is a colony, its people have only very limited claims to the inalienable rights bestowed upon them by their Creator, among which are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. It does so while the US government continues to deny them a meaningful decolonization process. Puerto Ricans no longer have any right to justice within the colony and no way out of the colony.
I hope we across the state of Illinois and the rest of the 50 states can join in the prescient appeal of Illinois Senator William E. Mason, who penned a resolution a year after the invasion of Puerto Rico by the United States stating:
“Whereas all just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed: Be it therefore RESOLVED BY THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, That the Government of the United States of America shall not attempt to govern the people of any other country of the world without the consent of the peoples themselves, or subject them by force to our domination against their will.
State Senator Omar Aquino represents Illinois’ 2nd District. Cristina H. Pacione-Zayas, also a state senator, represents the 20th district.
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