In SSI case, Supreme Court should extend a lifeline to Puerto Rico

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On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, a case about government benefits that many Americans take for granted. Jose Luis Vaello-Madero lived in New York until 2013, when he moved to Puerto Rico to care for his family. In 2016, the government told him that — based on his new residency — he was not eligible for Supplementary Security Income (SSI). The government sued him to recover the funds he had already received. Now the high court will decide whether it is constitutional for the government to deny SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico.

Although this case is not as high-profile as others this term, it could potentially have broad implications for Puerto Rico. Legal precedent, sound policy, and basic fairness suggest that a ruling for Vaello-Madero would be the just outcome. This is an also an opportunity for the court to define the rights of those living on the island in a more equitable way.

Supplementary Security Income (SSI) is often a lifeline for elderly, blind, and disabled people. Since 1972, when the program was created, SSI has been available to eligible citizens, except those living in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The lower courts hearing this case ruled for Vaello-Madero. The federal district court in Puerto Rico said that having separate categories for SSI eligibility violated the Constitution, finding that classifying a group of needy citizens as “second tier simply because they reside in Puerto Rico is by no means rational.” An appeals court agreed, saying that the U.S. couldn’t exclude eligible Puerto Ricans from a uniform national program. The high court should heed this reasoning.

It is not good policy to exclude Puerto Ricans from SSI. The 3.2 million people who live in Puerto Rico are American citizens. The island has a high rate of poverty and of people with disabilities. While the territory has its own version of SSI, called Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled, that program has more stringent eligibility requirements and pays out less in benefits. The average monthly benefit under Puerto Rico’s local program is $75 a month, while for people with SSI on the mainland it is $591 a month. Plus, in recent years the island has been hit hard by a financial crisis, Hurricane Maria, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leading advocacy and Latino organizations like the American Bar AssociationHispanic Federation, and LatinoJustice PRLDEF support Vaello-Madero’s position, as does the territory’s Republican congressional representative. Guess who else thinks denying SSI benefits to Puerto Rico is a bad idea: Joe Biden, whose Justice Department is pursuing the case against Vaello-Madero. “I believe that Puerto Rico residents should be able to receive SSI benefits,” the president said in a June statement, calling the current exclusion of Puerto Rico from the program “inconsistent with my administration’s policies and values.” 

Biden’s comments make his administration’s decision to appeal the case perplexing. The president said that his administration was obligated to defend existing law. This is not necessarily true; in 2011 President Obama directed the DOJ to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act because it did not align with his administration’s policy preferences.

The Biden administration’s general position is that reforming SSI should be left to Congress — as if the legislative body that has struggled to investigate an armed insurrection at the Capitol itself would ever take up the cause of vulnerable Puerto Ricans.

The administration contends that it would cost about $2 billion annually to make SSI available on the island, and notes that Puerto Rico residents do not pay federal income tax. But cost factors are not a legal basis for withholding benefits from citizens, and most of the people who qualify for SSI make too little to pay income tax anyway. The government’s unconvincing arguments aside, what’s at stake here is the well-being of needy Americans.

A ruling for Vaello-Madero could pave the way for Puerto Rico to achieve parity with the states in other programs like Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In addition, the court could roll back or overturn the so-called “Insular Cases,” a set of rulings from over a century ago that limit the territory’s rights.

The U.S. government should not be withholding benefits from Americans based on where they live. The Supreme Court must rule for Vaello-Madero, because all citizens deserve full access to our social safety net programs.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.

Tags Barack Obama insular cases Joe Biden Puerto Rico Supplemental Security Income Supreme Court of the United States U.S. territories United States v. Vaello-Madero US citizens

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