Biden calls on Congress to amend federal law to give SSI parity to PR

By The Star Staff

President Joe Biden said Monday that a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that extended the supplemental security income (SSI) to Puerto Rico goes against his administration’s policy.

All the same, the DOJ was to file a brief in the Supreme Court in the case United States v. Vaello-Madero, which addresses whether a provision in the Social Security Act that declines to provide Puerto Rico residents with Supplemental Security Income (SSI) violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection principle, according to a statement issued by the White House on Monday.

“This provision is inconsistent with my administration’s policies and values,” the president stated. “However, the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences. This practice is critical to the Department’s mission of preserving the rule of law. Consistent with this important practice, the Department is defending the constitutionality of the Social Security Act provision in this case.”

“As I have stated, I believe that Puerto Rico residents should be able to receive SSI benefits, just like their fellow Americans in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. I call on Congress to amend the Social Security Act to extend these benefits to residents of Puerto Rico. And as I reiterated in my first budget request, I also support eliminating Medicaid funding caps for Puerto Rico and moving toward parity for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to align with States. These steps, along with the American Rescue Plan, which included an enhanced Child Tax Credit for families and a permanent federal match expansion to the Earned Income Tax Credit program, will provide families in Puerto Rico an equal chance to get ahead,” Biden said. “As I’ve said before, there can be no second-class citizens in the United States of America. My Administration will work with members of Congress to make these legislative fixes a reality.”

The Vaello-Madero case is a major challenge to the exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from eligibility for the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides benefits to poor people who are older or disabled. The plaintiff in the case, José Luis Vaello Madero, received SSI benefits while he was living in New York, but the benefits stopped when officials learned that he had moved to Puerto Rico to care for his wife, who had her own health problems. The United States later went to court to try to recover over $28,000 in benefits paid to Vaello Madero after he moved to Puerto Rico. Vaello Madero countered that the omission of Puerto Rico residents from the program violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit agreed, and the Department of Justice appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court in early September 2020. In a petition filed by former Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, the DOJ told the justices that the 1st Circuit’s ruling “threatens to impose billions of dollars in costs on the United States” – as much as “$23 billion over the next 10 years.”

The Justice Department had asked for an extension on May 27 of this year to file a brief Monday in the case, arguing that finalization of the brief requires consultation with a number of government components and because attorneys with principal responsibility for preparation and review of the government’s brief have been heavily engaged with other matters.

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