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'Discriminatory': Puerto Ricans decry Supreme Court ruling allowing exclusions

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only dissenter, said “there is no rational basis” to deny federal benefits to disabled U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico.
Image: A woman waves the flag of Puerto Rico during a news conference on Puerto Rican statehood on Capitol Hill on March 2, 2021.
A woman waves the flag of Puerto Rico during a news conference on Puerto Rican statehood on Capitol Hill on March 2, 2021.Patrick Semansky / AP

Puerto Ricans on the island and in Congress criticized a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday that found it's constitutional to deny federal benefits to aging and disabled U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico, though they can access benefits if they relocate to the mainland.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote the decision, said that “just as not every federal tax extends to residents of Puerto Rico, so too not every federal benefits program extends to residents of Puerto Rico.”

In an 8-1 vote, the court sided with the Justice Department, which argued in favor of reversing a lower court ruling that had deemed it “invalid” to deny Supplemental Security Income benefits, also known as SSI, to Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. territory.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was the lone dissenter.

“In my view, there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. “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.”

Congress has made SSI benefits available to U.S. citizens living in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands but not to those who live in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa.

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.

Differences in taxation limit Puerto Ricans on the island in other ways, including the lack of voting representation in Congress and the inability to vote in U.S. presidential elections. And there are other restrictions when it comes to accessing federal safety net programs.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi blasted the Supreme Court's ruling in a statement in Spanish, saying that it further emphasized that “the territorial status of Puerto Rico is discriminatory for American citizens on the island” because it "allows Congress to do whatever they want with us."

"Clearly our people, particularly the most vulnerable, suffer the consequences of this unequal treatment," Pierluisi said.

Among those affected by the decision are families like Aurelis Aponte and her daughter Isabela, 5, who was born with seven major heart conditions.

"I felt like a bucket of cold water fell on me," Aponte told NBC News in Spanish Thursday after learning about the ruling. "I just felt outraged and sad. It was just a heavy piece of news."

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, the family had moved to Florida, where they were able to obtain aid, including food stamps and SSI benefits that helped pay for the girl's concurrent and expensive medical treatment.

But when the family returned to Puerto Rico, so Aponte could take care of her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, Isabela lost the SSI benefits. Those payments had put her parents “in a better position to help Isabela endure health conditions that don’t just go away,” Aponte previously told NBC News.

Image: Aurelis Aponte
Aurelis Aponte says her daughter, Isabella, who has several heart conditions, has been affected by the nonapplicability of the Supplemental Security Income program in Puerto Rico.Vanessa Serra Diaz / AP file

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who is of Puerto Rican descent, said in a statement that the ruling "is a demoralizing setback for the people of Puerto Rico, who deserve the same access to federal benefits as those living in the mainland United States. ... This ruling ought to set a fire under Congress to finally pass legislation that enshrines the rights of Puerto Ricans and other residents of the territories to parity in receiving comprehensive federal benefits."

Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of Congress, is urging lawmakers to extend SSI benefits to Puerto Rico through legislative action "to correct this outrageous discrimination that keeps more than 300,000 of our most vulnerable citizens in extreme poverty," the Republican lawmaker said in a statement.

Aponte agrees.

"This is not a whim. They just need to look at the numbers to see the need," Aponte said, adding that nearly 44 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty.

She said that though she's "made peace" with the fact she needs to hold down a few jobs to help her daughter, "I think about the disabled mother who can't work and has kids to care for. Let's give her SSI benefits and let's give SSI benefits to every Puerto Rican who doesn't have the means to relocate to the U.S. mainland."

Though President Joe Biden promised to “ensure residents of Puerto Rico have access to [SSI] benefits” during his presidential campaign, he defended the Department of Justice's efforts to deprive them of such benefits.

In a statement last June, Biden said the Department of Justice “has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences.”

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

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