SSI case raises questions about constitutional rights of insular area residents

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Attorney Hermann Ferré said his client was asked by the federal government to return payments he had received through the federal disability benefits program after he moved from New York state to Puerto Rico.

A landmark federal case that favored a resident of Puerto Rico in his claims for disability benefits places a spotlight on the exclusion of Guam and the other territories from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program under the Social Security Act.

Attorney Hermann Ferré is part of the team that handled the case. In an interview with K57’s Phill Leon Guerrero, Ferre said his client was asked by the federal government to return payments he had received through the federal disability benefits program after he moved from New York state to Puerto Rico.

As a territory, Puerto Rico is excluded from the SSI program. Earlier this year, the courts sided with Ferre’s client after the defense team invoked the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. According to Ferre, the federal government claimed that Puerto Rico does not pay their equal share in federal taxes. But Ferre said Puerto Rico, Guam, and the other territories actually pay federal taxes.

“That is one of the principal arguments that the federal government is making in this case — that Puerto Rico does not pay federal income taxes. The U.S. government would have to acknowledge in this case that Puerto Rico does pay into the federal treasury. All federal employees in Puerto Rico pay federal income tax. All residents of Puerto Rico, and I assume, Guam, pay income tax on earnings made outside the territory,” Ferre said.

Ferre said the decision is under appeal at the U.S. First Circuit Court. He said that the case raises questions about the constitutional rights of the residents of the territories.

“We think that the case would have broader implications. It wouldn’t be restricted to individuals who previously lived stateside and moved to a territory. What we have attacked is the definition of the territories as being outside the United States,” Ferre said.

The Supplemental Security Income program provides benefits to needy aged, blind, and disabled individuals. Eligibility in the SSI program is limited to residents of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

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