FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 4, 2021
For Office of Attorney General:
For Hispanic Federation and G-8:
Attorney General Letitia James, Hispanic Federation Call on DOJ to Protect the Rights of U.S. Citizens in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — New York Attorney General Letitia James and the Hispanic Federation today called on the U.S. Department of Justice and the Biden-Harris Administration to stop denying life-saving assistance and federal programs to U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico, and drop their appeal in the case U.S. vs. Vaello-Madero, now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a press conference held at the Santiago Iglesias Pantín Elementary School in the Caño Martín Peña section of San Juan, Attorney General James and Frankie Miranda, president and CEO of Hispanic Federation, were joined by local and visiting leaders to raise awareness about the potentially-landmark case that will determine whether it is constitutional to deny otherwise eligible Americans access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits — based solely on their status as residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or American Samoa. Earlier district and circuit court rulings found that excluding Puerto Ricans and residents of other territories from accessing these benefits is a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The federal government has appealed the case. Arguments are scheduled to take place at the Supreme Court next Tuesday, November 9.
“Imagine the U.S. Department of Justice mounting an argument against providing equal access to potentially life-changing, and even lifesaving, federal benefits to an American citizen living in New York, Florida, Oklahoma, or any other state,” said Attorney General James. “That is exactly the form of discrimination and unfair treatment more than 3 million American citizens are currently experiencing just because they live in Puerto Rico. We are supporting this fight in the Supreme Court because every American deserves the right to equal protection under the law, no matter where they live. It’s time for the federal government to drop this appeal and help ensure that no American is left behind as our country works to build back better.”
In September, Attorney General James, as part of a coalition of 18 attorneys general, filed an amicus brief in U.S. v Vaello-Madero, where they urged the Supreme Court to reject the federal government’s continued efforts to discriminate against the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. In the brief, the coalition of attorneys general argue that legal precedent holds that Congress must have more than one reason to treat one region of the country differently than another, and that Congress has not even been consistent with its behavior because it has included some territories in benefits programs while excluding others. Additionally, the coalition argued that excluding territories from anti-poverty programs harms some of the neediest Americans, and that the differential treatment of U.S. territories is rooted in racist governing.
Hispanic Federation will also continue to push the Biden Administration to take direct action on ending discrimination against Puerto Rico. “While we recognize the important efforts by the Biden Administration to include SSI for Puerto Rico in the proposed Build Back Better legislation, we cannot continue to leave the rights of Puerto Ricans to the whims of Congress,” stated Frankie Miranda, Hispanic Federation President and CEO. Miranda met with President Biden at the White House this past August and called upon him to desist from his defense of the case. According to Miranda, “This unjust discrimination against Puerto Rico in SSI and other federal programs is rooted in blatantly racist Supreme Court precedents determined over a century ago. The opportunity is now for President Biden and the Supreme Court to finally right this wrong with a new legal precedent that makes it clear unjustly denying any American their full rights is unconstitutional, and indefensible.”
Hispanic Federation also joined a different amicus brief with other nonprofit advocacy groups calling on the Supreme Court to stop denying US Citizens in Puerto Rico their Constitutional Rights and has pressed the Biden Administration at every turn to keep their campaign promise and end their defense of discrimination against Puerto Ricans. It will continue to do so including by being at the Supreme Court on Tues Nov 9th when the oral arguments will take place.
As part of their ongoing advocacy efforts on equity for Puerto Rico in federal programs, including SSI, Hispanic Federation brought together Attorney General James with leaders of the G-8 (a local community organization), and MAVI (a local nonprofit that works with the people with disabilities). Also present was Aurelis Aponte, the mother of a four-year old daughter with seven major heart conditions who lost the much-needed SSI benefits after moving back to Puerto Rico from Florida. The family had previously been displaced by Hurricane Maria.
Aponte explained, "After just one month of moving to Florida, our family was approved for food stamps, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. These benefits were a blessing for us while we struggled to recover and care for our family. However, I couldn’t help but wonder why my family didn’t receive this kind of help when we lived in Puerto Rico and then lost them for simply moving back home. For this reason I ask of President Biden, the Supreme Court Justices, and member of Congress just one thing: Give my daughter Isabella a fair chance to live and end this discrimination against Puerto Rico.”
U.S. v Vaello-Madero centers on José Luis Vaello-Madero, an 88 year-old elderly person who lives with disabilities and who received SSI benefits while living in New York, but was excluded and removed from the program when he relocated to Puerto Rico. The Social Security Administration is now demanding that he even pays back disability benefit payments that he previously received while he was on the island — a U.S. territory since 1898. Mr. Vaello-Madero’s case has become emblematic of the need to change eligibility precedents for U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico and in other U.S. territories. The appeal was initially filed by the Trump Administration, but is now being continued by the Biden Administration.