A lawsuit filed by two Puerto Ricans seeks to have Puerto Rico declared to be an “incorporated” territory and an end to its lesser treatment in Federal benefit programs.
The U.S. Supreme Court has determined Puerto Rico to be an “unincorporated” territory — a possession instead of a part — of the U.S. It has also ruled that the Federal government may treat territories differently than the States in most programs providing benefits.
Incorporated territories are destined for statehood and are treated equally with the States in taxation. The ultimate political status of unincorporated territories has not been determined. Puerto Rico is currently treated like a State under most laws but is treated less well or excluded from some program laws that fund health care and provide assistance to low-income individuals and treated differently in or excluded from most tax laws.
Ildefonso Colón, Jr. and Ernesto R. Rivera Candia, members of a nonpartisan, pro statehood group named Generation 51, filed the suit against the Attorney General of the U.S.
It claims that the two would be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) if they lived in the U.S. instead of Puerto Rico. SSI provides direct Federal financial assistance to low-income elderly and disabled individuals. It applies in the States, the District of Columbia, and one unincorporated territory, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Puerto Rico, like the unincorporated territories of Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, gets Federal grants under the program that preceded the establishment of SSI. The grants only enable the insular governments to provide far less assistance to some of the members of society who have the least ability to support themselves.
The suit disputes the Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court decisions more than a century ago which found that the U.S. could have territories it did not incorporate into the nation and that only fundamental rights — not all provisions of the Constitution — applied in these territories. It also notes that Judge Gustavo Gelpi of the Federal District Court for Puerto Rico has determined Puerto Rico has become an incorporated territory.
Through attorney John Mudd of Puerto Rico, Colon and Rivera ask that unequal treatment of incorporated territories be declared unconstitutional and that residents of Puerto Rico be treated equally in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and SSI programs among others. The EITC provides a credit against income taxes to low income workers or a check to the extent that the workers cannot use a tax credit.
The court filing states that Puerto Ricans pay the taxes that fund Social Security and Medicaid, in the latter case presumably meaning Medicare. Puerto Ricans pay the tax that partially funds Medicare, which provides health care for elderly and disabled individuals.
Puerto Rico is treated equally with the States in the Social Security program but less well in Medicare – and Medicaid, which provides health care for low-income individuals.