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Supreme Court to hear case that could expand rights of Puerto Rico citizens

United States v. Vaello-Madero will be heard Tuesday
Supreme Court Puerto Rico
Posted at 11:00 PM, Nov 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-08 09:11:36-05

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It's clear the country won’t be adding any more stars to the American flag any time soon.

Efforts to make Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico official states have stalled in Congress.

However, while D.C. citizens still have access to many government programs that citizens of all the 50 states enjoy, Puerto Rico citizens are ineligible for many. 

Take, for instance, Supplemental Security Income, SSI.

It’s a program that helps Americans with illnesses or disabilities get by.

Those who live in D.C. qualify for it, but those who live in Puerto Rico do not, even though people in both places pay federal taxes.

Why? When Congress passed SSI decades ago, they didn’t include residents of the island.

SUPREME COURT CHALLENGE

Well, the debate over the rights of Puerto Rico citizens will be front and center in the Supreme Court this week.

The case is called United States v. Vaello-Madero.

Oral arguments are on Tuesday.

It’s about a man named Jose Luis Vaello-Madero. In 2013, he moved from his home of 28 years in New York City back to Puerto Rico. When he became ill he filed for SSI benefits.

If he moved to, let’s say, Florida instead, it would have been no problem. However, when the Social Security Administration learned where he moved, they cut him off from the program and demanded he pay back $28,000 worth of benefits he had already received. 

The Biden administration is split on the issue.

President Joe Biden has issued statements calling for Puerto Rico citizens to be covered by government programs like SSI.

“There can be no second-class citizens,” Biden said. 

Biden’s Justice Department, however, has done the opposite, actually arguing against Vaello-Madero in court.

"The Constitution vests Congress, not the courts, with responsibility for making appropriate changes,” attorneys wrote in legal briefs.

While the high court is not expected to issue an opinion on this case for months, the outcome could dramatically change what Puerto Rico’s 3 million-plus residents are entitled to.

That would potentially make government programs even more costly to American taxpayers since more people would be eligible to enroll.