Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González.
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González. (Archivo)

Washington - Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González said yesterday that of all the disparities in access to federal assistance that Puerto Ricans on the island face none is as shocking as the exclusion from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program since it affects seniors and disabled people.

Meanwhile, Senate president José Luis Dalmau Santiago, and House speaker Rafael “Tatito” Hernández, agreed with the administration of Pedro Pierluisi that denying SSI to island residents represents discrimination based on “race” and/or “national origin”.

Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico House Speaker, and Senate President filed three of the at least 18 amicus curiae briefs in the case where the Supreme Court is reviewing a decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals declaring unconstitutional the exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from SSI.

The Donald Trump administration appealed the decision in August 2020, an appeal upheld by the Joe Biden administration.

The controversy arose when the federal government sought to recover $28,081 that SSI paid Puerto Rican José Luis Vaello Madero $28,081 when he moved to the island. Vaello Madero began receiving benefits as a resident of New York before moving to Puerto Rico.

“An American citizen living under the poverty level in the 50 States, the District of Columbia, or the territory of the Northern Mariana Islands is no more needy, vulnerable, or deserving of assistance than an American citizen living under the poverty level in the Island,” read the brief filed by Gonzalez’s legal counsel, Verónica Ferraiuoli Hornedo.

Commissioner González’s amicus curiae brief also stated that “SSI is a means-tested entitlement program, which— unlike traditional Social Security—, does not require that a beneficiary make payments into the program to be entitled to its benefits. An American in the 50 States, in the District of Columbia, or in the territory of the Northern Mariana Islands receiving SSI is as likely to pay federal taxes as an American living in Puerto Rico. There is no justifiable reason for this statutory Discrimination”.

SSI benefits disabled adults and children with low income and limited resources. It also benefits people over the age of 65 who meet certain financial criteria. This program could have an impact on the island of about $2.27 billion annually.

The Senate amicus curiae brief argues that the Insular Cases and other decisions that limit the access of Puerto Rico residents rights “rest on the obsolete, discriminatory, repugnant, and, above all, constructed and unfounded constitutional assertion that Congress’s plenary powers over Puerto Rico and the millions of U.S. citizens that reside on the Island are akin to absolute, monarchical, or tyrannical power and can be exercised without any regard to the limits and protections imposed by the rest of the U.S. Constitution”.

The brief filed by House attorneys Emil Rodríguez Escudero and Jorge Martínez Luciano said the Biden administration, contradicts itself by indicating that it is up to Congress to decide Puerto Rico’s access to federal programs, under the territorial clause, and at the same time claiming that ISS can dislocate the island’s autonomy.

They warned that Congress “drastically reduced the scope of Puerto Rico’s self-rule by enacting PROMESA”.

The House brief added that “the obvious answer is that benefits are denied to those who have chosen to reside in Puerto Rico. By and large, people who reside in Puerto Rico are Puerto Rican nationals”.

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