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Civil rights groups: Overturn racist Supreme Court rulings used to deny benefits to Puerto Ricans

The Insular Cases, a string of century-old rulings suffused with racist language, are still being used to justify the unequal treatment U.S. territories endure.
Image: The U.S. Supreme Court Building
The Supreme Court in Washington.Robert Alexander / Getty Images file

Civil rights groups are renewing efforts to urge the federal government to overrule a series of century-old Supreme Court rulings they say continue to serve as the legal basis to racially discriminate against people living in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Hispanic Federation, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Equally American joined forces Tuesday to launch a campaign to overturn the Insular Cases, which have long upheld a series of disparities when it comes to rights in the U.S. territories and the 50 states.

The early 1900s rulings were decided by most of the justices who legalized racial segregation under Plessy v. Ferguson after Puerto Rico came under U.S. control following the 1898 Spanish-American War. The rulings deemed the residents of U.S. territories as “alien races” and “savage tribes.”

The campaign to overturn the Insular Cases comes a month after the Supreme Court used them as legal precedent when it decided in an 8-1 vote that it’s constitutional to deny federal benefits to aged and disabled U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico, though they can access the same benefits if they relocate to any of the 50 states in the mainland.

"The time is now for the court to overrule the Insular Cases," Alejandro Ortiz, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s racial justice program, said Tuesday. “They justify continuous maintenance of U.S colonies."

Based on the Insular Cases, Congress and the federal government are allowed to arbitrarily treat Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories as foreign for domestic purposes and as a state for international purposes.

For example, Puerto Ricans can be drafted and serve in the U.S. military, but those who live on the island cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections or have members of Congress with voting power. The same reasoning has also been used to justify funding disparities when it comes to financing public programs in Puerto Rico such as Medicaid and food stamps.

Puerto Ricans are “generally exempt from most federal taxes, including the income tax, excise taxes, and estate and gift taxes,” according to the Justice Department. However, Puerto Ricans do pay federal payroll taxes and help fund public programs such as Medicare and Social Security, contributing more than $4 billion annually in federal taxes to the United States.

In the decision delivered by Justice Brett Kavanaugh last month, the court found that Congress’ decision to exempt Puerto Ricans from most federal taxes "supplies a rational basis" to also exclude them from Supplemental Security Income benefits program, also known as SSI.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was the lone dissenter in the SSI benefits ruling.

In her opinion, Sotomayor describes as “especially cruel” the denial of SSI benefits to Puerto Ricans living on the island since “Puerto Rico has a disproportionately large population of seniors and people with disabilities.”

“There is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others. To hold otherwise, as the Court does, is irrational and antithetical to the very nature of the SSI program and the equal protection of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent.

Under the newly launched campaign, advocates seek to build off some of the momentum they had gained earlier this year when 13 groups urged the Department of Justice to publicly condemn the Insular Cases.

In a letter sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland in February, the civil rights groups said this action should come as part of Biden’s efforts to advance racial equity through a series of executive orders the president signed in January.

Puerto Rico now joins U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa in lacking access to SSI benefits following the latest Supreme Court ruling. However, these benefits have been granted to the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands through congressional action.

Laura Esquivel, vice president of federal policy and advocacy at Hispanic Federation, said Congress must extend SSI benefits to Puerto Rico during this term, the same way they did with District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands.

"It either happens now, or it doesn't happen for the foreseeable future," Esquivel said Tuesday.

While President Joe Biden promised to “ensure residents of Puerto Rico have access to [SSI] benefits,” his administration decided to move forward with a Trump-era appeal to reverse a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling from last year deeming as “invalid” the practice of denying SSI benefits to Puerto Rican residents.

The Supreme Court ultimately ended up siding with arguments provided by Biden's Department of Justice that the denial of benefits to Puerto Ricans on the island is not unconstitutional.

In a statement in June, Biden defended the actions of the Department of Justice, saying it “has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences.”

Biden also said Puerto Ricans “should be able to receive SSI benefits” and called on Congress to amend the Social Security Act to include them.

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