Law in Contemporary Society

You Get Out What You Put In, According to the Court

-- By AdrianHernandez - 05 Jun 2022

The difference in what it means to be a citizen in Puerto Rico, Texas, Wyoming, DC, Northern Marina Islands, and so on is arguably a subject that isn’t discussed enough. The recent decision by the Supreme Court in the US v Vaello-Madero case—where the court decided that Puerto Rican citizens are not eligible to receive funds from the Federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program—however is a place to get the conversation started. Being a citizen of the United States doesn’t mean you are seen as equal in the eyes of the government.

Where do Puerto Ricans get their citizenship?

Citizens of Puerto Rico did not gain their citizenship through the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, and instead got their citizenship through the Immigration and Naturalization Act and the Jones Act. However, this only allowed for naturalized citizenship. It wasn’t until the Nationality Act of 1940 that allowed anyone to be born in Puerto Rico to be considered citizens. Although the United States considers people of Puerto Rico citizens, because Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory they are only entitled to fundamental rights under the Constitution.

Who is eligible for SSI benefits?

The federal SSI program is a program designed to help low-income adults once they become disabled. To become eligible to receive SSI benefits, outside of the at dispute requirement of state residency, seems to be based on your income, disability status, and age. There is not a further requirement—such as paying into the program for a certain amount of time over your lifetime—in order to qualify to receive the benefits from the program.

Court’s Decision and Rationale

The court’s main rationale for stating that Puerto Rican citizens were ineligible to receive benefits from the program because they don’t pay all the taxes that citizens in the states pay, so they should not be eligible for the same benefits. That was the argument that the United States government presented and was only accepted by the Supreme Court.

Why this Doesn’t Make Sense

Though the argument of the court accepted makes sense on the surface, there are holes in its rationale.

The first one being that a lot, if not most, of people who are on the SSI program are probably not paying taxes towards the program—the main reason Puerto Rican citizens are ineligible to receive funds from the program. The program is meant to assist low-income and arguably the neediest citizens with a monthly income. It is highly doubtful that the recipients of this program are making enough income to be contributing to the program.

Looking at the requirements of the program, it only states that a certain income and disability status is what’s necessary in order to be eligible. The court’s rationale is adding a requirement that wasn’t stated by the program. The program was established by the Federal government, and by adding a qualifier that was not stated in the initial eligibility, it could lead to further implications.

As Justice Sotomayor stated in their dissent of the case, this could have implications on states that aren’t contributing to the same level as others and could receive less assistance because of it.

What Should Be Done?

Ideally, citizens should be treated the same, regardless of if they are in a territory or in a state. Citizens in territories already don’t get an opportunity to vote and receive representation, so the least the government could do is provide them the same protection as if they were in the states. Puerto Rico becoming a state can also resolve any discrepancies in treatment of its citizens. However, this is another can of worms that the people of Puerto Rico have had a lot of differing opinions on.

Even during life-threatening situations, the US government has treated its people in territories as second class citizens. The United States held back billions of dollars from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands after they were impacted by hurricanes in 2017. Even recently, during the pandemic, the US government has still maintained that the territories will continue to receive caps on the funding for their Medicaid financing.

The reason why the citizens of the Puerto Rican island don’t receive all the same benefits of those in the states, including SSI eligibility it appears is because of the Insular Cases. These cases create a racial classification like the Plessy and Korematsu cases. There has been a lot of criticism that the Supreme Court hasn’t overturned them. Even though the US government denies it is using the Insular Cases in the Vaello-Madero case, their existence leaves the door open for them to be used against Puerto Rico’s predominately-Latine population.

It can’t be overlooked that a lot of the territories of the United States are made up of a largely ethnically minority population. Programs that exclude citizens of these territories don’t seem to be discriminating on the superficial level, but they’re essentially kicking people who are a suspect class. In the Puerto Rico example, though there are Latine people in both the United States and Puerto Rico—only one of them is predominately Latine. A territory made up of a historically and currently powerless group that is under United States control.

There shouldn’t be a distinction of what a citizen benefits from because of where they live—especially when it comes to our Federal programs. At the end of the day, the United States benefitted or is currently benefitting from having these territories, so it’s unfair to treat its citizens differently. If they don’t mean to treat them the same as citizens in the states, then why are they giving them citizenship to begin with?

Though it’s easier said than done, the best way to resolve this problem is to get rid of the antiquated distinctions of citizens based on where they live. It’s almost a caste system of the United States. Though one can (arguably) move easily, they shouldn’t be punished for it if they are living on the same land that has a United States flag planted on it.

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r3 - 06 Jun 2022 - 04:39:57 - AdrianHernandez
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