• The San Juan Daily Star

Arguments found lacking in SCOTUS hearing on SSI case

Pro-statehood attorney Gregorio Igartúa

By The Star Staff

Arguments in the United States Supreme Court hearing this week regarding the best way to handle a federal law that denies disability benefits to U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico showed ignorance about Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, a pro-statehood lawyer said Thursday.

Gregorio Igartúa, who has argued several cases in U.S. courts about the rights of Puerto Ricans and the island’s political status, took issue with arguments presented by both sides in the case of José Luis Vaello Madero.

In 2016, the Social Security Administration learned that Vaello Madero had moved to Puerto Rico. The government discontinued his benefits, applied the cutoff retroactively and sued to recover more than $28,000 in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments that Vaello Madero received while living in Puerto Rico.

At issue is whether Congress violated constitutional protections by excluding residents of Puerto Rico from SSI, a monthly cash payment for low-income elderly, blind or disabled people.

One of the topics that was brought up was whether allowing Puerto Ricans to obtain SSI benefits will also entail the payment of federal taxes because residents do not pay them. The U.S. government lawyer argued that the U.S. has a valid justification for excluding Puerto Rico, pointing to its residents’ general exemption from paying most federal taxes, including income tax.

“That is not true,” Igartúa said. “We do pay $3 billion in federal taxes, more so than some other states. Because we are poor, even if Congress decides to impose federal income taxes, about 60% of the population will not have to pay them.”

He also noted that Puerto Ricans pay for their Social Security and Medicare benefits.

“Those are not gifts for us but something we earn,” he said.

The government lawyer also noted that adding Puerto Rico to the disability program would increase costs by $2 billion per year.

While many of the justices grilled U.S. lawyers for excluding Puerto Rico from SSI benefits, they also appeared unsure about how to resolve the case without upending the government’s relationship with its territory.

Chief Justice John Roberts wondered aloud if the Supreme Court accepted Vaello Madero’s argument that it might “apply to every federal benefit program” that Puerto Rico is excluded from.

Igartúa also took issue with the idea of lumping Puerto Rico together with the other U.S. territories because the commonwealth is the most assimilated of all the territories. He also disputed claims raised at the hearing that the Puerto Rico Constitution was written to allow Puerto Rico to be an independent country.

“It was actually to become a state,” Igartúa said. “And even the insular cases state that Puerto Rico should continue to be a territory until it becomes part of the U.S. family but we were granted U.S citizenship, what more do you want?”

He noted that the Puerto Rico Constitution granted the island fiscal autonomy.

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