Aurelis Aponte eagerly awaits the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a possible landmark case that will determine whether it is constitutional to deny federal benefits to elderly and disabled U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico, although they can access them if they wish. they lived in the Americas.
Aponte’s daughter, Isabela, was born with seven major heart problems in February 2017, just months before Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.
After living a month without electricity and unable to work, Aponte and her husband, Jonathan López, used the money they had left in their bank account to buy them and their two daughters banknotes. plane to Florida.
Aponte, 37, who worked as a supervisor at a physiotherapy clinic, told NBC News she “never thought I would be a refugee.” After arriving in Florida, a church helped Aponte access the assistance his family was entitled to, including hurricane-related assistance, food stamps, and additional security income benefits, also known as from SSI, for his daughter.
As an American citizen with serious health problems, Isabela was eligible for SSI benefits, which help people with disabilities, the elderly and the blind in financial difficulty. Three weeks after Aponte applied on behalf of her daughter, she began receiving the benefits, which helped the family cover her living expenses and medical bills.
“It puts us in a better position to help Isabela cope with health issues that don’t just go away,” Aponte said in Spanish.
After living in hotel rooms for months and getting new jobs, Aponte and López were ready to move to Orlando when they had to return to Puerto Rico to help take care of Aponte’s mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Once back in the United States, Isabela lost her SSI benefits.
According to the federal government, the United States is permitted to withhold SSI benefits from U.S. citizens based on where they live.
Benefits are available to U.S. citizens living in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not available to those living in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.
“We returned to Puerto Rico aware of what we were going to lose because of this system, aware of the difficulty for us to move forward economically. But at the end of the day, we were talking about my mom, ”Aponte said.
In a Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday, the Justice Department is expected to argue for overturning a US Court of Appeals ruling from last year that found the practice “invalid” denying SSI benefits to Puerto Rican residents, stating that the federal government has failed to establish “a rational basis for excluding Puerto Rican residents from SSI coverage.”
The arguments are part of a case involving José Luis Vaello-Madero. Vaello-Madero lived in New York City from 1985 to 2013, when he moved to Puerto Rico to care for his wife. He had started receiving SSI benefits in 2012, while still in New York, until he was told in 2016 that he was not eligible after moving to Puerto Rico.
A year later, the Social Security Administration filed a civil action against Vaello-Madero, asking him to pay more than $ 28,000 in benefits he received while living in Puerto Rico.
“This injustice pains me so much”
Aponte said her daughter’s benefits were withdrawn “for no good reason” as she prepared to face further heart surgeries and a possible heart transplant in the future.
“The Isabela who has seven heart problems, who comes from a family that has hit rock bottom despite tireless work to get back on its feet, is the same Isabela who now lives in Luquillo, Puerto Rico,” said Aponte. “That is why this injustice pains me so much.”
According to Laura Esquivel, vice president of federal policy at the defense organization Hispanic Federation, the Vaello-Madero case is the first in a series of lawsuits relating to disparities in federal benefits between U.S. territories for be taken to the Supreme Court.
“This is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to finally right this historic wrong with a new legal precedent that makes it clear that unfairly depriving any American of their full rights is unconstitutional and indefensible,” Esquivel said.
About 700,000 people living in Puerto Rico would be eligible for SSI benefits if the Supreme Court upholds the ruling. That would mean a total of $ 1.8 billion to $ 2.4 billion per year for skilled Puerto Rican residents over the decade, according to the Social Security Administration. Almost 44 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty.
Instead of SSI benefits, Puerto Rico has a local program called Help for the Elderly, Blind and Disabled. To qualify, people can’t earn more than $ 65 per month, compared to $ 750 per month for SSI, the Associated Press reported in June. Those who qualify for the Puerto Rico program receive an average benefit of $ 77 per month, while SSI recipients receive an average of $ 533 per month.
A legal precedent behind the disparity
A series of Supreme Court rulings from the early 1900s known as Island cases have long served as legal precedents for decisions involving Puerto Rico and other American territories.
The island cases were written by most of the Supreme Court justices who legalized racial segregation under Plessy v. Ferguson after Puerto Rico came under American control as a result of the Spanish-American War. Essentially, the business has enabled Congress and the federal government to treat U.S. territories as foreigners for national purposes and states for international purposes, especially when it comes to funding public programs.
While Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned almost 60 years later in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, island affairs have never been canceled.
Esquivel said she viewed the Supreme Court case as “the possibility of a decision that replaces racist island cases.”
Although President Joe Biden has promised to “ensure that residents of Puerto Rico have access to [SSI] social benefits “during its presidential campaign, the justice ministry is expected to argue Tuesday before the Supreme Court that the denial of benefits to islanders is not unconstitutional.
In a statement in June, Biden said the Justice Department “has a long-standing practice of upholding the constitutionality of federal laws regardless of political preferences.”
Biden said Puerto Ricans “should be able to receive SSI benefits” and called on Congress to amend the Social Security law.
As part of its 57-page brief, the Justice Department argues for Puerto Rican residents’ denial of SSI benefits because they “are generally exempt from most federal taxes, including income tax, taxes. excise and inheritance and gift taxes “.
Puerto Ricans pay federal payroll taxes and help fund public programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Differences in taxation limit Puerto Ricans on the island in other ways, including lack of electoral representation in Congress and the inability to vote in US presidential elections, among other restrictions when it comes to accessing federal programs safety net.
On Thursday, the Hispanic Federation and more than 60 other organizations in the United States and Puerto Rico sent a letter to Biden urging and his administration “to immediately withdraw government appeals in the Supreme Court’s Vaello Madero case.”
In an interview with NBC News, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi said the way the Biden administration “has handled this matter and the way it defends it is not fair.”
“This program has nothing to do with whether you pay taxes or not. The vast majority, if not all, of SSI recipients do not pay federal income taxes,” primarily because their income is so low that they are not required to report taxes, Pierluisi mentioned. “It’s also a bit arbitrary.”
If the Supreme Court does not side with the Puerto Ricans on the island, Pierluisi said: “I have no doubts that Congress will do it.”
Lawmakers are looking to add wording in the $ 1.75 trillion Build Back Better legislation, which is still being negotiated in Congress, to include Puerto Rico in the SSI program over the next two years.
“This is by no means a done deal,” Esquivel said, adding that congressional intervention still does not resolve the problem of legal precedents that allow for differences in how island and mainland Puerto Ricans obtain benefits.
A few other cases that deal with the same issue are currently on hold pending the Supreme Court’s final resolution on the Vaello-Madero case, Esquivel said.
In the meantime, Aponte and López have said they are struggling to keep up with the mounting medical bills. As Aponte awaits the Supreme Court’s decision, she said she wants lawmakers and ordinary Americans “to see Puerto Ricans with sensitivity because we really didn’t ask for that.”
“I wish I could tell you that I am exaggerating when I tell you that I am hiding behind my bravery, my strength and my faith,” said Aponte. “To stop people feeling listless, I would invite anyone to walk in my place.”
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