Hispanic Federation Decries Biden Administration Decisions to Defend Discrimination Against Puerto Ricans

President of Hispanic Federation: Defending the constitutionality of a deeply flawed federal program cannot come before the constitutional rights of the people



Alia El-Assar

Hispanic Federation released the following statement regarding the Biden Administration’s decision to defend discrimination in U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, a case scheduled to be heard in the next U.S. Supreme Court session which denies equitable access to federal benefits for residents of Puerto Rico.

“We are deeply disappointed that on Monday, the Biden Administration has chosen to file a brief to the Supreme Court making the argument that it is acceptable under the U.S. Constitution to deny benefits to an otherwise qualified, disabled U.S. citizen simply for living in Puerto Rico. As the 1st Circuit Court ruled, it is unconstitutional to discriminate against an American citizen based on where they live within the U.S. The Trump administration previously appealed the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals decision to the Supreme Court, arguing in favor of continued discrimination against citizens in Puerto Rico by the federal government. We are shocked the Biden Administration has chosen to side with the Trump Administration in filing its brief defending the unconstitutional position. As Americans, our right to due process and equal protection under the law is fundamental. For President Biden to argue that his administration is obligated to defend the denial of these constitutional rights to Puerto Ricans undermines our democracy,” said Frankie Miranda, president and CEO of Hispanic Federation.

In U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court ruling that held the exclusion of otherwise eligible Puerto Ricans from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal benefits program to help low-income aged, blind and disabled people with basic needs such as housing, clothing, and food, only because of their status as Puerto Rican residents violated the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. SSI benefits are available to any U.S. citizen living in any of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam.

The courts determined that the Territorial Clause relied upon by both the Trump and Biden administrations “is not carte blanche for Congress to switch on and off at its convenience the fundamental constitutional rights to Due Process and Equal Protection enjoyed by a birthright United States citizen who relocates from a State to Puerto Rico.”

That decision was appealed by the Trump Administration to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On August 3, 2020, in a similar case, Peña Martinez v. United States Health and Human Services, the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico also ruled that it was a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to deny not only SSI, but also other government assistance, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy (LIS) to residents of Puerto Rico.

“Benefit programs that effectively reduce poverty should be available to all U.S. citizens – including those that live in Puerto Rico. Denying equal access to programs for low-income people such as SSI, food stamps, and Medicare based on where they live is discriminatory and wrong. If President Biden really believes that Puerto Ricans should not be treated as “second class citizens,” he should direct his administration to stop defending the claims that discrimination is justified in the case of disabled and low-income Puerto Ricans who reside on the island,” concluded Miranda.

In Peña Martinez v. HHS, the district court judge determined that “the federal safety net is flimsier and more porous in Puerto Rico than in the rest of the nation. To be blunt, the federal government discriminates against Americans who live in Puerto Rico.”

More Americans live in Puerto Rico (3.2 million) than in each of 21 other states, the District of Columbia (700k), and all the other U.S. territories together. The blatant discrimination and inequity in access to federal programs have contributed to the highest poverty rates anywhere in the U.S. Poverty, like racism, is a social determinant of health and is associated with worse outcomes in every metric.

“We agree with the Court in Peña Martinez that ‘no rational basis supports the categorical exclusion of otherwise eligible residents of Puerto Rico from the SSI, SNAP, and LIS benefit programs.’ Yet, in that case, the Biden Administration also filed an appeal stating that the “rational basis” was that Congress decided it would "cost too much" to provide the same benefits to low-income citizens residing in Puerto Rico. Congress, the Trump Administration, and now the Biden Administration, have relied on the enduring separate-but-unequal legal status to exclude Puerto Ricans from many of the benefits that U.S. citizens in the States, and even citizens in some other U.S. territories, enjoy,” said Laura M. Esquivel, vice president for federal policy at Hispanic Federation. “The Biden Administration must recognize and support the role of the U.S. judiciary to protect the Constitutional rights of politically unpopular groups when Congress has failed to act and allow the lower court rulings to stand.”

The Biden Administration’s explanation that “the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences” in order to defend “the rule of law” is inconsistent with previous DOJ decisions - including when Joe Biden was Vice President under President Obama. In fact, at that time, Vice President Biden enthusiastically supported the Obama administration’s decision to drop its defense of a law passed by Congress by instructing the Justice Department to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

It is a widely accepted principle that the DOJ has an obligation to defend legislation passed by Congress, but if the Attorney General determines that the legislation is unconstitutional, it has a higher obligation to defend the constitution.

Furthermore, Congress has also ‘evolved’ since 1896, when the groundwork for discrimination against U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico it was rationalized by the same Supreme Court that allowed “separate but equal” segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson. The recently introduced House Resolution 237 states that “the Supreme Court’s decision in the “Insular Cases” and the "territorial incorporation doctrine" are contrary to the text and history of the United States Constitution, rest on racial views and stereotypes from the era of Plessy v. Ferguson that have long been rejected, are contrary to our nation's most basic constitutional and democratic principles, and should be rejected as having no place in United States constitutional law.”having no place in United States constitutional law.”