V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett planned to meet with White House officials on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the Justice Department’s continued defense before the Supreme Court of statutes that deny U.S. citizens of overseas territories equal access to federal programs.
Plaskett, members of the House Committee of Natural Resources and her fellow representatives from Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico also penned a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, requesting that the DOJ stop defending cases against U.S. citizens of overseas territories that lower courts have ruled are discriminatory – and that President Joe Biden on Monday said did not align with his administration’s values.
“DOJ should inform the Supreme Court and lower courts that its position has changed with respect to federal statutes that continue to arbitrarily deny equal access in critical federal programs to U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and other territories based solely on where they happen to live,” the letter states.
Denying U.S. citizens of overseas territories equal access to federal safety net programs such as Supplemental Security Income is a decades-old issue that gained new prominence on Monday as the DOJ filed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Vaello Madero.
The DOJ argued in its brief that while Congress has the power to extend SSI benefits to U.S. citizens residing in overseas territories, not doing so does not violate the Constitution.
Madero began receiving SSI benefits in 2012 as a resident of New York State. When he moved to Puerto Rico to care for his ailing wife in 2013, he continued to receive benefits – until he applied for Social Security in 2016 and the federal government realized he was living in the territory. In 2017, the DOJ filed a lawsuit invoking a criminal statute against Madero to recover $28,081 in SSI benefits he received while in Puerto Rico.
The Trump administration sought review of United States v. Vaello Madero after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld a District Court ruling that denying SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico is discriminatory, Neil Ware, a civil rights attorney from Guam who founded Equally American, said in a statement on Monday. The nonprofit advocates for territorial rights, and its advisory board includes former V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen and former V.I. Gov. Charles Turnbull.
The Supreme Court granted review of United States v. Vaello Madero in March, prompting Plaskett and her fellow reps to write the letter to Garland. The DOJ has continued with the case under the Biden administration.
The case prompted Biden to issue an unusual statement just prior to the DOJ filing its brief before the Supreme Court on Monday, voicing his disagreement with the provision in the Social Security Act that denies U.S. citizens of overseas territories access to SSI.
“This provision is inconsistent with my administration’s policies and values,” Biden said in the statement, while also noting that the DOJ “has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences.”
Stating that “there can be no second-class citizens in the United States of America,” Biden called on Congress to amend the Social Security Act and said his administration will work with lawmakers to do so.
“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.,” Biden said, adding that he supports removing Medicaid funding caps for Puerto Rico, “and moving toward parity for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to align with the states.”
While the DOJ has argued that denying parity to U.S. citizens of overseas territories is justified because, among other things, they are exempt from paying certain federal taxes, Plaskett has previously disputed that notion and did so again on Tuesday when contacted for comment.
“The Insular Cases go well beyond the ability of citizens in the territories to vote. We pay billions of dollars in federal taxes, and yet, residents of U.S. territories are denied access to critical federal programs and support,” Plaskett said.
The Insular Cases that Plaskett refers to, and which are also featured in the letter to Garland, are a series of racist Supreme Court decisions from the turn of the last century that established a legal doctrine of “separate and unequal” status for U.S. citizens of overseas territories that persists to this day.
“Otherwise eligible citizens in the territories are denied Supplemental Security Income, leaving our most vulnerable seniors and disabled people to fend for themselves. Federal programs, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Child Tax Credit, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), are either capped or denied altogether. This discrimination against residents of the territories must end now,” Plaskett said.
“We have reached out to the White House, and we will be in discussion with them” about territorial rights and Biden’s comments, Plaskett said. “In the interim, we have sent this letter asking that the Department of Justice not support this case,” Plaskett said.