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Civil Rights Groups Condemn the Supreme Court’s Decision in U.S. v. Vaello-Madero



April 21, 2022   


Carolina González | Senior Director of Strategic Communication| [email protected] | 212-739-7513   

Sarai Bejarano | Manager of Traditional & Digital Media | [email protected] | 212-739-7581

Civil Rights Groups Condemn the Supreme Court’s Decision in U.S. v. Vaello-Madero
Puerto Rico residents continue to receive second class treatment from the U.S. government


WASHINGTON — Civil rights groups condemn the Supreme Court’s decision to exclude citizen residents of Puerto Rico from federal safety-net programs in the U.S. v. Vaello-Madero case, and demand the Biden administration stop defending discrimination against Puerto Ricans and other citizens living in U.S. territories, especially when it comes to federal benefits for disabled, low-income, and elderly citizens.

The Supreme Court’s decision today represents the continuation of the U.S. government's century-long discriminatory treatment of Americans living in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories. In spite of the Court’s assertion, this discrimination is not just based on the Territorial Clause of the Constitution but also on racist cases decided by the Supreme Court in the early 20th century in a series of decisions known as the Insular Cases. Despite his campaign promise to end discrimination against Puerto Ricans, President Biden failed to use this historic opportunity to exercise his powers and immediately fulfill his commitment. Instead, he deferred to Congress, whose rationale for this discrimination seems to be that it is too costly to ensure that a federal safety-net exists for all of the nation’s most vulnerable if they live in a U.S. territory.

The lone voice of justice on the court came from Justice Sotomayor, who in her dissent stated, “SSI is designed to support the neediest citizens. As a program of last resort, it is aimed at preventing the most severe poverty. In view of that core purpose, denying benefits to hundreds of thousands of eligible Puerto Rico residents because they do not pay enough in taxes is utterly irrational. Congress’ decision to deny to the U. S. citizens of Puerto Rico a social safety net that it provides to almost all other U. S. citizens is especially cruel given those citizens’ dire need for aid.” We concur.

Hispanic Federation and its allies recognize this decision as a setback, not a defeat, and vow to continue our collective work to ensure all U.S. citizens are treated equally and fairly regardless of where they live.

Congress must act now to end this injustice that perpetuates a two-tier system of citizenship among potentially millions of residents of Puerto Rico and other territories. We also call on President Biden to fight to ensure Congress enacts legislation to treat Puerto Ricans equitably in all federal safety net programs that support the most vulnerable citizens.

“We condemn the Supreme Court’s decision today to exclude Puerto Ricans from SSI and their defense of ongoing discrimination in federal safety-net programs. It is shameful that our nation’s highest court once again failed to protect the democratic and constitutional rights of ALL U.S. citizens and continues to treat Puerto Ricans with such appalling injustice. Such cruel practices counter the fundamental objective of federal welfare programs, helping the most vulnerable citizens. Although this decision is a setback, it is not a defeat. Hispanic Federation will continue to work to ensure that all U.S. citizens, regardless of where they live, are treated equally and fairly,” said Frankie Miranda, President and CEO of Hispanic Federation.

Vaello-Madero, a U.S. citizen with a disability, was sued for nearly $28,000 for receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments after he moved from New York to Puerto Rico to be with his family. Although Madero won his case in the lower courts, the Justice Department appealed it at the Supreme Court. SSI provides funding to the most vulnerable people, including the disabled, blind, and elderly, who cannot support themselves. It is available only to U.S. citizens living in the 50 states, D.C., and the Northern Mariana Islands but excludes U.S. citizens living in other territories.

“The Supreme Court turned a blind eye to the historical discrimination in federal safety-net programs against Puerto Ricans and other citizens living in U.S. territories. SSI is not just a policy; it is a policy that could save the lives of vulnerable people, including my daughter Isabella who was born with major heart conditions. My daughter did not ask for her illness, yet she has to continue to suffer the consequences of such injustice. Is it fair to prevent Puerto Ricans from accessing potentially life-saving assistance only because of where they live? This injustice is causing a lot of pain and suffering for families in similar situations and worse because they may not have a voice to be heard against this discriminatory decision. I am hurt and disappointed that the U.S. government, once again, decided to discriminate against my daughter and the thousands of families like ours. Now it is time for Congress to fight this discriminatory practice and guarantee that all U.S. citizens receive equal access to federal safety-net programs, no matter where they live,” said Aurelis Aponte, mother of a child with a disability who lost benefits when returning to Puerto Rico.

“Excluding Puerto Rico’s residents from the SSI program is particularly harmful given the island’s older population, high poverty rate, and the number of older adults with disabilities,” said Kate Lang, senior staff attorney at Justice in Aging. “Puerto Rico has a higher percentage of older residents than any state in the U.S., and more than 40% of Puerto Rico’s residents 65 and older live in poverty. We are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s ruling and urge Congress to take steps to correct this injustice.”

“LatinoJustice PRLDEF is appalled by the Supreme Court’s decision to deny Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, and by extension all residents of Puerto Rico, entitlement to SSI. This decision is outrageous on many fronts. In opposition to the findings of the District Court and Court of Appeals, in this case, the Supreme Court decision wrongly reinforces the notion that those in Puerto Rico are less than full citizens of the United States and deserve less than full access to the rights and benefits of citizenship. The decision also prolongs the racist exclusion of Puerto Ricans from vital federal benefits afforded to citizens living in the 50 states, undergirded by precedents that compound wrongs and historical practices that should have been rejected long ago. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated in her dissent, there is ‘no rational basis’ to treat U.S. citizens anywhere so differently, especially when the impacts of this differential treatment so starkly abdicate basic responsibilities to the neediest citizens. We agree with Justice Neil Gorsuch that the Insular Cases ‘rest on a rotten foundation’ and must be discarded as a rationale for discriminatory decisions that exclude Puerto Ricans and residents of other U.S. territories from the Constitutional rights and protections to which they are entitled,” said Lourdes M. Rosado, President and General Counsel, LatinoJustice PRLDEF.