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  • By Gina T. Reily

House panel fights for US territories

DOJ asked to quit defending discriminatory policy on federal benefits

Rep. Raúl Grijalva

Washington-- Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to stop defending federal statutes that arbitrarily deny equal treatment to U.S. citizens in the territories in a range of federal programs, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Grijalva noted that more than 8 million U.S. citizens receive SSI benefits of up to $783 a month that provides a critical lifeline for them and their families to avoid extreme poverty.

"Yet, should any of these Americans move to certain U.S. territories, their SSI benefits automatically stop, even as the personal financial challenges they face due to age or disability do not," Grijalva stated in a letter co-signed by 12 of his House colleagues and sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland

"This is not just wrong, it is unconstitutional. Arbitrarily denying our most vulnerable citizens their inherent dignity based on their zip code cannot be squared with the principles of equality enshrined in our Constitution," the letter added.

Grijalva said the "systemic discrimination" citizens living in Guam, American Samoa, CNMI, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico "is rooted in a series of racist, Plessy-era Supreme Court decisions known collectively as the Insular Cases."

Those cases established a controversial legal doctrine of “separate and unequal” status for residents of overseas territories.


“I hope this congressional letter will encourage the Biden DOJ to take the position that no otherwise eligible American should be denied SSI simply because of where they live,” said Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American, a nonpartisan public interest organization that works to advance equality and voting rights in U.S. territories.

“There is no rational reason why Americans in those territories should be treated differently than their peers in the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands, who are all eligible for SSI benefits,” Weare continued. “This discrimination is not just unfair; it is unconstitutional.”

The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of arbitrarily excluding otherwise eligible Americans living in the territories from the SSI program. United States v. Vaello-Madero will decide whether such discrimination violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. The Biden DOJ must now decide whether to continue defending the challenged discrimination.

“Equally American applauds Chairman Grijalva and his House colleagues for taking this stand, and we join them in urging the Biden DOJ to discontinue defending the discrimination at issue in Vaello-Madero, just as DOJ has recently done in an array of other cases brought by the prior Administration,” Weare said.


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