Why Americans in Certain U.S. Territories Can’t Get Disability Benefits

By Anita Hofschneider, Honolulu Civil Beat

May 4, 2022

When David Diamadi and his wife Joyce debated returning from Florida to Joyce’s home island of Guam more than a decade ago, they pondered what would be best for their daughter Haley, who has Down syndrome. Down.

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Living on the American island territory would bring them closer to many members of Joyce’s extended family and give Haley, then three years old, the chance to grow up loved and supported by her many cousins.

They knew that living in Guam would mean more limited options for medical care. But at the time, Diamadi had no idea that the decision they ultimately made would also eliminate her daughter’s ability to qualify for Supplemental Security Income, a federal benefit to support people with disabilities, when she turned 18.

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He would only discover years later that this had always been the case for residents of Guam and most of the US island territories.

The Diamadi family lives in Guam and their daughter is not eligible for federal disability insurance because they live in an ineligible US territory. Courtesy of David Diamadi

The United States Supreme Court ruled overwhelmingly last month that residents of Puerto Rico are not eligible for disability benefits because they live in US territory and do not pay the same federal taxes as people living in US states.

“Just as not all federal taxes extend to residents of Puerto Rico, neither do all federal benefit programs extend to residents of Puerto Rico,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the majority opinion for the United States v. Vaello Madero case, signed by eight of the nine judges.

The case involved a Puerto Rican resident, Jose Vaello Madero, who received disability benefits when he lived in New York and continued to receive the checks when he moved to Puerto Rico. When the federal government realized that Vaello Madero had moved to the island territory, the government sued for reimbursement of more than $28,000 in disability benefits.

Not all territories are excluded from the program. Residents of the Northern Mariana Islands are eligible for disability benefits due to their unique political status.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling underscores that residents of Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands will not be eligible for additional funding anytime soon, a blow to advocates who say citizens of US territories deserve the same access to federal programs as people in US states.

Still, the case is just one development amid a broader ongoing advocacy effort to overturn Island cases, a long-standing legal precedent that helps justify the different treatment of Americans who live in the territories. Americans compared to residents of American states.

This week, plaintiffs in another case, Fitisemanu v. United States, petitioned the Supreme Court to grant American Samoans the right to birthright citizenship. Currently, people born in American Samoa are US nationals and must move to another US jurisdiction and apply through an expedited process to receive US citizenship.

United States V. Vaello Madero

Judge Sonia Sotomayor was the sole dissenter in the United States v. Vaello Madero case. She argued that those eligible for the Supplemental Security Income program “pay little or no tax at all.”

Basing program eligibility on payment of taxes could disqualify “needy residents of Vermont, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Alaska from benefit programs on the grounds that residents of these states pay less to the federal treasury than residents of other states,” she wrote.

She also wrote that Island affairs “were based on beliefs that were both abhorrent and false”. Judge Neil Gorsuch, in his concurring opinion, also wrote that “the flaws in island business are as fundamental as they are shameful.”

Neil Weare, a lawyer and founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Equally American, is representing American Samoan plaintiffs in Fitisemanu v. United States. He is also in the midst of a lawsuit in Hawaii, Borja v. Nago, pushing for voting rights for residents of Guam and the US Virgin Islands.

Weare found Sotomayor’s and Gorsuch’s opinions encouraging, particularly because both judges came to the same conclusion even though Gorsuch is conservative and Sotomayor is liberal.

“No Supreme Court justice ever said explicitly that it was time to overturn the island cases,” he said. It is “a good sign that they are looking to solve these problems”.

Not everyone agrees that residents of the territory should be treated the same as US citizens in the states, or with efforts to extend citizenship to American Samoans.

In fact, the government of American Samoa has strongly opposed this effort and has emphasized the value of American national status out of concern for how canceling island affairs might violate local laws and customs.

American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands have restricted land ownership that many locals see as a vital part of indigenous sovereignty, and some scholars believe these land laws could be threatened if island affairs are overturned.

Extending Supplemental Security Income to the territories has met with less resistance than extending US citizenship, but comes at a steep price. According to one estimate, between 2021 and 2023, the program could cost $22.7 billion to residents of Puerto Rico and $0.7 billion to residents of other territories.

Biden’s Build Back Better proposal would have permanently extended Supplemental Security Income payments to residents of U.S. island territories, but the high price tag of the president’s many proposals stalled legislation in the stalled Senate amid Republican opposition.

Need 24/7 care

Weare still thinks Vaello Madero’s decision could spur Congress to act.

David Diamadi, a member of the National Guard who has been deployed to the Middle East and works for the Department of Defense, does not share Weare’s optimism.

“I have very little confidence that anything will pass anytime soon,” he said, citing partisan divisions in Washington.

Diamadi said the amount of disability assistance they would receive — about $775 a month — isn’t a huge amount, but would be enough to make a difference in the family’s financial spreadsheets.

Haley has an extreme version of Down syndrome. At 17, she still wears diapers, can’t fully speak, and doesn’t have a long attention span. She also suffers from epilepsy, autism and ADHD.

“She covers the full range of many disabilities,” he said. She will always need someone to look after her, Diamadi thinks, and that kind of 24/7 care is what a monthly social insurance payment could help cover.

Diamadi understands the argument that residents of the territory should pay more taxes to access more federal benefits. At the same time, he said, “She’s an American citizen. I’m an American citizen.”


Honolulu Civil Beat is dedicated to building a body of informed citizens, all striving to make Hawaii a better place to live. We do this through investigative and surveillance journalism, in-depth corporate reporting, analysis and commentary that gives readers a bird’s-eye view of issues important to our community.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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