Puerto Ricans denounce SCOTUS decision denying them federal disability benefits

NEW YORK — Father Enrique Camacho’s grandmother died Feb. 2, after long battles with dementia and metastatic cancer. She didn’t receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and the family couldn’t afford 24-hour in-home nurses, so Camcho’s aunt quit her job and, for the past two years , slept in the hall adjacent to the grandmother’s room to provide care.

Camacho’s grandfather, also deceased, was a World War II veteran who worked for more than 30 years for the United States military at the Fort Buchanan military base in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. He also did not receive SSI benefits in his senior years.

Camacho said Node his family’s story to shed light on the need for Puerto Ricans to get SSI benefits and the hardships people go through without them, after the Supreme Court on April 21 refused to order Congress to extend federal disability benefits to residents of Puerto Rico.

He said the ruling by the country’s High Court was surprising and saddened him greatly.

“It is unconstitutional to grant benefits to some American citizens and not to others. The Constitution is for everyone,” said Camacho, a longtime resident of Puerto Rico and executive director of Caritas Puerto Rico. “We are the people. We are families. We are suffering. It is something really important, especially when you are old and when you are disabled to receive help.

SSI is a federal program that provides monthly payments to adults and children with disabilities or who are blind below certain financial limits, and to people age 65 and older without disabilities who meet certain financial requirements.

The program extends to people who live in any of the 50 states, Washington DC or the Northern Mariana Islands. An exception is made for children of military parents assigned to permanent service outside the United States and certain students temporarily abroad. It does not extend to residents of other US territories, even if they are US citizens.

The Supreme Court had the opportunity to change that on April 21 and ensure Puerto Rico residents receive SSI benefits, but in an 8-1 decision in the case United States vs. Vaello Madro — a case that challenges the constitutionality of excluding Puerto Rican residents from the program — the justices chose to leave the decision in the hands of Congress.

“The constitution grants Congress substantial discretion over how to structure federal tax and benefit programs for residents of the territories,” said the court’s opinion, delivered by Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

“Exercising this discretion, Congress may to expand [SSI] benefits to residents of Puerto Rico… But the limited question before the court is whether, under the Constitution, Congress must to expand [SSI] to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent as residents of the United States,” the opinion continued. “The answer is no.”

Kavanaugh also felt that the court’s ruling otherwise would have “far-reaching potential consequences.” He noted that Congress currently exempts residents of Puerto Rico from most federal income, gift, estate, and excise taxes, nor has it extended all federal programs to them. benefits, including SSI.

Therefore, Kavanaugh argued that if this decision went the other way, Congress would likely have to extend other federal benefits and programs to residents of the territories in the same way those programs extend to the states, which could cause the state citizens to counter and insist that federal income tax be imposed on residents of Puerto Rico and other territories. This could “inflict significant new financial burdens on residents of Puerto Rico, with serious implications for the Puerto Rican people and the Puerto Rican economy,” the judge noted.

In the lone dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, argued that “the constitutional order does not permit Congress to ignore the equally important constitutional order of treating U.S. citizens as equally”.

“Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process,” Sotomayor said. “Because residents of Puerto Rico have no electoral representation in Congress, they cannot rely on their elected representatives to address the punitive disparities suffered by resident citizens of Puerto Rico under the unequal treatment of Congress.”

Camacho said part of the shock of the Supreme Court ruling was its 8-1 nature, especially since the ruling was about “humanity” and “mercy,” and some of the justices who stood against the extension of SSI benefits are Christian or Catholic.

Camacho noted, however, that because the decision is ultimately in the hands of Congress, he still hopes that one day residents of Puerto Rico will receive SSI benefits. He challenges both Supreme Court justices and federal lawmakers to travel to Puerto Rico and see for themselves the hardships people are going through.

“Every day I see a lot of completely lonely old people living in inhumane conditions,” Camacho said. “You see really dirty houses with nothing in the fridge, and when you see old people like that, it hurts and I see that very often.”

“If they see what families are going through they might change their minds because it’s not about party or politics, it’s about giving people what they deserve because we are part of it,” he added.

The Biden administration has signaled support for Puerto Rican residents receiving SSI benefits. With the ball in Congress’s court, however, Camacho said the most important thing is for the people of Puerto Rico to share their stories and those of their families.

“I think people like me should share their stories because people on the continent should know what’s really going on,” Camacho said. “It’s really something that people should share their reality because it’s my story but there are many more like mine or worse.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg

About Antoine L. Cassell

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