The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit decided last year that residents of Puerto Rico should be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) just as residents of the 50 States are.
But SSI benefits are not yet flowing to Puerto Ricans. The Trump administration filed an appeal, and the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case. The Court will make the final decision.
U.S. v. Vaello-Madero examines the case of Jose Vaello-Madero, who lived in New York when he began receiving SSI disability benefits in 2012. He moved to Puerto Rico in July of 2013 and continued to receive his disability benefit payments via a New York bank account until August 2016. The federal government sued Mr. Vaello-Madero for $28,081 to obtain the funds the U.S. government claimed he was not supposed to get under U.S. law after he moved to Puerto Rico.
In 2019, U.S. District Judge Gustavo Gelpí said that the government was in the wrong. Acknowledging that the government is allowed to treat people in territories differently as long as they have a “rational” reason for doing so, Gelpi said, “Classifying a group of the Nation’s poor and medically neediest United States citizens as ‘second tier’ simply because they reside in Puerto Rico is by no means rational.”
Supreme Court Appeal
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and Resident Commissioner Jennifer González-Colon (R-PR) have asked the Biden Administration to drop the Supreme Court appeal. “This is another example of how the American residents living in Puerto Rico are discriminated against just because they reside in a territory. It is about time we get fair and equal treatment in federal programs as well as with voting rights,” Pierluisi added, pointing out that statehood would resolve these disparities.
Gonzalez-Colon had already joined Congressman Ritche Torres (D-NY) in filing HR 537, the Supplemental Security Income Equality Act, in February. The bill would require equal treatment of territories in SSI. Two weeks later, Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Darren Soto (D-FL), Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) wrote to President Biden asking him to extend SSI to the U.S. territories.
However, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) wants to go ahead with the case.
“Congress has enacted a wide range of statutes that treat Puerto Rico and other Territories differently than the States for purposes of federal funding,” the DOJ said in one filing. In another, they pointed out that “Congress has a legitimate interest in limiting government expenditures, and excluding Puerto Rico from SSI is a rational means of advancing that interest.”
In other words, the DOJ doesn’t want to treat Puerto Rico equitably because it would cost the government. However, the late Judge Juan Torruella wrote in the decision from the appeals court in 2020, “even under rational basis review, the cost of including Puerto Rico’s elderly, disabled, and blind in SSI cannot by itself justify their exclusion.”
The U.S. government can’t refuse to treat the U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico unfairly in order to save money, according to that decision.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the federal government’s appeal, but the Court hearing date has not yet been set.