Supreme Court Declares Puerto Ricans No Longer Eligible for Some Federal Benefits

In a discriminatory blow to differently abled men and women living in the U.S. Island territory of Puerto Rico, the Supreme Court has ruled these individuals are not eligible for Supplemental Security Income. In other words, low-income elderly, blind or disabled Puerto Ricans are now officially excluded from disability benefits offered by the federal government — despite being U.S. citizens — based purely on the location in which they live.

Inside the Case

The court’s decision stems from a federal case brought against 67-year-old Jose Luis Vaello-Madero. While living in New York state, Vaello-Madero became severely ill and as a result, was eligible for federally provided Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The SSI program, which was created in 1972, replaced a mishmash of existing state policies to offer one federal program designed to support individuals who are aged, blind or otherwise disabled.

In 2013, after collecting his benefits for about a year, Vaello-Madero moved from New York to Puerto Rico. Unaware of the change in his benefit eligibility, he continued collecting SSI benefits until 2017 when the U.S. government discovered he was no longer living in the continental U.S. and decided to try to recoup more than $28,000 in federal SSI payments it had already paid out to him in the time since he left New York. As part of that repayment process, the government also filed suit against Vaello-Madero demanding the money back.

While a federal district judge, as well as the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, initially ruled in Vaello-Madero’s favor and declared that his exclusion from federal SSI benefits violated the equal protection principle of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution’s due process clause, attorneys for the federal government appealed the decision, pushing the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

The High Court’s Decision

In an 8-1 decision announced on April 21, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the lower courts which had ruled before it and decided that Vaello-Madero was not eligible for SSI benefits, despite being a U.S. citizen. The court further ruled that people in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories should also be considered ineligible for similar disability benefits.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote the court’s decision in the case, said the verdict wasn’t the result of discrimination but rather differences in the rights of people living in U.S. states vs. U.S. territories.

Kavanaugh and the other justices who supported the decision said that rather than staying on U.S. federal SSI benefits, which average around $590 a month, Vaello-Madero should have instead been receiving aid directly from Puerto Rico local programs for indigent elderly, blind or disabled individuals, which pay out approximately $75 per month.

In the lone dissent in the case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor (who is of Puerto Rican descent), claimed that in her opinion, the court’s decision was both discriminatory and unlawful.

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

Public Backlash at the Decision

While some groups have championed the court’s decision, saying it’s an example of state’s rights and the ability of the government to treat territories differently because they are not states, many others have lamented the fact that no one seems to be looking out for Vaello-Madero or others like him whose rights don’t appear to be being considered at all in the verdict.

In a statement released after the court’s decision was announced, Hermann Ferré, who was one of the attorneys representing Madero, said: “It is unfortunate the court failed to see the discrimination faced by the most needy Puerto Rican Americans whose only distinguishing feature is that they choose to remain in Puerto Rico, their home on U.S. soil. This is a devastating day for Mr. Vaello-Madero and for Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rico’s Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who has long campaigned for Puerto Rico statehood, was also disappointed by the court’s decision. He said the people of Puerto Rico are not treated equally to people in the states.