The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday filed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that Congress has the power to deny otherwise eligible U.S. citizens in the territories access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits based solely on where they happen to live.
"However," Biden said in a statement, "the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences."
Biden called on Congress to amend the law so Puerto Ricans would not longer be excluded.
On Guam, Vice Speaker Tina Muna Barnes said she was encouraged by Biden's statement.
"Americans must be afforded the same benefit to critical government programs, regardless of their geographic location. While I agree that there cannot and should not be any second-class citizens in the United States and territories, many of the policies separating territories from states are based on racist doctrine and continue to affect nearly four million Americans throughout the territories," Muna Barnes said.
Last September, the DOJ sought review of United States v. Vaello Madero, a landmark decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that upheld a District Court ruling that the denial of SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico. In March, the Supreme Court granted review.
While the DOJ brief defends the federal law, it also recognizes that “as a matter of policy, the administration supports extending SSI benefits to Puerto Rico residents.”
The brief acknowledges that Vaello Madero’s “circumstances forcefully illustrate the case for enhancing aid to needy individuals in Puerto Rico.”
But ultimately, DOJ’s position is that “Congress is fully empowered to extend SSI to Puerto Rico in light of the concerns respondent identifies, but its decision not to do so does not violate the Constitution under this court’s precedents.”
Neil Weare, president and Founder of Equally American which advocates for equal rights for residents of U.S. territories, said the discriminatory policy isn't just wrong, but also unconstitutional.
"The SSI program is one of our nation's most successful social safety net programs, recognizing the inherent dignity of millions of the most vulnerable, low-income Americans who are aged, blind, or disabled by providing them with a basic income," Weare said.
'However, while these critical benefits are taken for granted in most American communities, they are not available to otherwise eligible residents of most U.S. territories for no other reason than where they happen to live,"he added.
The case before the Supreme Court stemmed from the federal government's attempt to recover previous payments made to José Luis Vaello Madero.
In 2012, Madero began receiving SSI disability benefits after he became afflicted with severe health issues while living in New York State.
The following year, he moved from New York to Puerto Rico to help care for his wife, who also had significant health concerns.
Not realizing his change in address meant he was no longer eligible for SSI, he did not question when his benefits continued.
When Vaello Madero applied for retirement benefits in 2016, the Social Security Administration ceased payments after learning that Madero now lives in Puerto Rico.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit invoking a criminal statute against Vaello Madero to recover the $28,081 in SSI benefits he had received while he was a resident of Puerto Rico.
Vaello Madero, represented by a pro bono lawyer, argued that SSI discrimination against residents of U.S. territories violates the Constitution's guarantee of Equal Protection.
The district court and a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed, concluding that discrimination against residents of Puerto Rico with respect to the SSI program fails judicial review under any standard.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the natural resources committee will redouble its efforts to work with other committees of jurisdiction to expand access to SSI Income and other federal programs for residents of U.S. territories.
"I have urged the new administration to guarantee equity in federal programs to Americans living in these jurisdictions, and today’s announcement has done nothing to change my conviction that a permanent solution is necessary," said Grijalva, chair of the committtee.
"Expanding access to federal programs for residents of U.S. territories, including Supplemental Security Income for residents of Puerto Rico, is one of my top priorities in this Congress,” he added.
Following is President Biden's full statement on the Puerto Rico case released Monday by the White House
Today, the Department of Justice will file a brief in the Supreme Court in the case United States v. Vaello-Madero, which addresses whether a provision in the Social Security Act that declines to provide Puerto Rico residents with Supplemental Security Income (SSI) violates the Constitution’s equal protection principle. This provision is inconsistent with my Administration’s policies and values. However, the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences. This practice is critical to the Department’s mission of preserving the rule of law. Consistent with this important practice, the Department is defending the constitutionality of the Social Security Act provision in this case. As I have stated, I believe that Puerto Rico residents should be able to receive SSI benefits, just like their fellow Americans in all 50 states and Washington D.C. I call on Congress to amend the Social Security Act to extend these benefits to residents of Puerto Rico.
And as I reiterated in my first budget request, I also support eliminating Medicaid funding caps for Puerto Rico and moving toward parity for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to align with States.
These steps, along with the American Rescue Plan, which included an enhanced Child Tax Credit for families and a permanent federal match expansion to the Earned Income Tax Credit program, will provide families in Puerto Rico an equal chance to get ahead. As I’ve said before, there can be no second-class citizens in the United States of America. My Administration will work with members of Congress to make these legislative fixes a reality.