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U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), listens to U.S. Representative Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) speak during a press conference for the announcement of the bicameral introduction of the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington March 18, 2021. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ANNA MONEYMAKER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) 
U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), listens to U.S. Representative Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) speak during a press conference for the announcement of the bicameral introduction of the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021 on Capitol…

AOC and Nydia Velazquez respond to DOJ’s defense of law denying SSI to Puerto Rico

The joint statement comes after President Joe Biden declared the DOJ’s decision is “inconsistent” with his administration’s values.  

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On Monday, June 7, the Department of Justice (DOJ) defended a provision in the Social Security Act that denies Puerto Rico residents the right to Supplemental Security Income (SSI), siding with the notion that it does not violate the Constitution’s equal protection principle. 

“This provision is inconsistent with my Administration’s policies and values,” President Joe Biden declared earlier that day in a statement. 

He added that the DOJ has a duty to defend the constitutionality of federal statutes regardless of policy preferences, declaring that within this case, the DOJ is defending the constitutionality of the Social Security Act provision. 

He didn’t stop there, as he also called on Congress to introduce legislation to expand these benefits to Puerto Rico.

In the past, Biden has said he believes Puerto Rico residents should receive SSI benefits just as citizens of the United States enjoy on the mainland. In his statement this week, he called on Congress to amend the Social Security Act to extend these benefits to Puerto Rico. 

“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,” he wrote.

Biden also supports eliminating Medicaid funding caps for Puerto Rico, bringing the full benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to the island, enhancing the tax credit for families, and creating a permanent federal match expansion to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program. 

These are all provisions that Puerto Rico would have on the same level as the rest of the non-territory U.S., were it not for a series of rulings known as the Insular cases, going back 100 years. 

Over the course of these cases, the Supreme Court held that the full benefits and protections of the Constitution did not apply to territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

They are a lingering product of colonialism that perpetuate the racist thought of the time, as they are based on premises that Puerto Rico and other newly-adopted territories were “inhabited by alien races” that differed from the U.S. and other majority-white western countries at the time.

For a century, these cases have reinforced the barriers to potential statehood or self-determination for Puerto Rico. In many other ways, the repercussions of the Insular Cases continue to be felt. Territories were never set on a path for complete integration into the U.S., meaning that residents could be denied those aforementioned basic constitutional rights. 

The effects go beyond the ability to receive SSI, or benefit from Medicaid, SNAP, the child tax credit, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, though these themselves are either capped or completely denied. 

Despite paying billions of dollars in federal taxes, residents of U.S. territories are not eligible to vote in federal elections or have a voting representative within Congress.

Following Biden's statement on the DOJ decision, it was a clear opening for representatives who have recently introduced legislation to expand these benefits to Puerto Rico, to reiterate their cases.

The DOJ’s decision and Biden’s earlier statement led representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) to release a statement on the matter, calling attention to the exclusion of Puerto Rico from these fundamental benefits to U.S. citizens. 
 

AOC and Velázquez’s joint statement expressed their “deep disappointment” in the case United States v. Vaello-Madero to uphold the constitutionality of the current law, which excludes Puerto Ricans from receiving the federal SSI, arguing that the DOJ decision effectively upholds the historic treatment of Puerto Rico as “second-class”

“When it comes to ensuring parity in federal benefits for the territories, this is a missed opportunity to do right by the people of Puerto Rico,” they wrote.        

The representatives also took note of Biden’s call to Congress to pass legislation to extend SSI and other federal benefits to Puerto Rico. In their letter, they issued their own call to action. 

“We call on the President and our fellow members of Congress to support the Territorial Equity Act, which would provide overdue access to federal benefits including SSI, Medicaid, SNAP, and popular tax credits to residents of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories,” they wrote

Introduced this April by Velázquez and Senator Bernie Sanders, the Territorial Equity Act would help U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa gain more access to federal programs. 

Puerto Rico continues to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s landfall in 2017, and has not received the full sum of aid promised to them. The U.S. government and its own local government has failed its people on swift allocation and distribution of funds. 

Initiatives like the Territorial Equity Act wouldn’t fix the issue, but they would provide more than what’s been delivered. 

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