President Joe Biden released a statement today, saying that federal law denying Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to residents of the Territories based solely on where they happen to live “is inconsistent with my Administration’s policies and values.”
Calling on Congress to provide “legislative fixes” for SSI, Medicaid funding, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Biden said “there can be no second-class citizens in the United States of America.” This comes in advance of the U.S. Department of Justice filing a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Vaello Madero that will continue to defend continued discrimination against residents of U.S. territories in federal programs.
“While many would have liked to see the Biden-Harris DOJ reverse course on defending continued discrimination against residents of U.S. territories, it is significant that President Biden is doubling down on his commitment to bring an end to discrimination in federal benefits programs through a long-overdue legislative fix,” said Neil Weare, President and Founder of Equally American, which advocates for equal rights for residents of U.S. territories. “To my knowledge, this is the first time an American President has ever expressly called for an end to second-class citizenship for residents of the Territories, which has the potential to be a very big deal. Drawing this kind of clear line in the sand should help create the kind of political momentum needed for Congress to finally act on these longstanding issues. The political consequences if the President and Congress fail to act could be significant, with the Puerto Rican diaspora likely a significant force in both the upcoming mid-term elections and again in 2024.”
President Biden’s proposed FY2022 Budget calls for “moving toward parity” in U.S. Territories for “critical Federal programs including Supplemental Security Income,” as well as addressing disparities in Medicaid funding and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Last September, the Trump 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.
In 2012, José Luis Vaello 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 under federal law, he did not question when his benefits continued. In 2016, after Mr. Vaello Madero applied for retirement benefits, the Social Security Administration realized he now lived in Puerto Rico and ceased payments. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit invoking a criminal statute against Mr. Vaello Madero to recover the $28,081 in SSI benefits he had received while he was a resident of Puerto Rico.
After the court-appointed pro bono counsel, Mr. Vaello Madero 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.
More information about Vaello Madero is available at https://www.equalrightsnow.org/vaello_madero.
(Equally American Release)