US lawmaker says Build Back Better bill hopes to fix SSI gaps in territories
As Guam's campaign season warms up, Leon Guerrero hits San Nicolas for 'failure' to advocate in Congress
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Congress has the discretion to exclude U.S. territories from the federal Social Security Income program, a U.S. lawmaker said a House-backed bill hopes to resolve this issue.
H.R. 5376, better known as the “Build Back Better Act,” proposes to extend the SSI and other federal programs to U.S. territories. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill in November last year.
“House Democrats have taken a stand against these inequities and passed legislation to extend SSI benefits and expand other federal programs to the territories,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, a Grijalva, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. “I urge my colleagues in the Senate to do the same.”
SSI benefits are granted to persons with financial needs, who are elderly, blind or have a disability. The program is available to residents of 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands have been fighting to be included in the program, but the Supreme Court’s recent ruling reversed their initial wins in federal courts.
“Denying SSI benefits for the hundreds of thousands of Americans living in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories is unjust to its core,” Grijalva said.
If H.R. 5376 is enacted in its current form, more than 300,000 eligible residents of U.S. territories would receive a monthly check of up to $794 in SSI.
On Guam, the court's decision quickly made a political turn, with Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero taking a potshot at Guam Delegate Michael San Nicolas, a gubernatorial candidate who will challenge her in the Democratic Party's primary.
“Inclusion of CNMI residents as recipients of SSI benefits underscores the potential for congressional action to extend these benefits to our people, which the Supreme Court holds today is the appropriate path for territories seeking similar benefits,” said Leon Guerrero, who is seeking a second term.
“Effective advocacy in Congress is necessary to enable our people to receive this life-saving aid, and the failure of our delegate to address these longstanding issues for the advancement of our people is negligent and disappointing,” the governor said.
At the Guam Legislature, Vice Speaker Tina Muna Barnes said the Supreme Court decision underscored “the need for Congress to exercise its plenary powers and correct the injustice which stems from a bleak era in our nation's history.”
“I had the opportunity to meet with Neil Weare, the founder of Equally American, to discuss how to mobilize the stakeholders necessary to continue the fight for our people,” Muna Barnes said.
Sen. Telo Taitague said the court ruling “imposes grave collateral damage for equal protections provided by the Constitution for Guam citizens.”
“We are now more entrenched than ever before as a second-class society,” she added. “This decision has a parallel impact to other federal programs such as other Social Security benefits and the earned income tax credit defining that Guam realistically is at the mercy of Congress,”
Sen, Telena Nelson said approximately 25,000 citizens living on Guam could have been eligible to receive SSI payments for much-needed healthcare and support.
“The decision to not grant these benefits to our people further separates Guam citizens from the United States mainland,” she said. “We are part of the United States, and it is very disheartening to see that there is no equity for the people residing in Guam and the U.S. territories who need SSI benefits.”