Biden Justice Department will defend denying Puerto Ricans SSI benefits

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President Biden said Monday his Justice Department will defend current law that denies Supplemental Security Income benefits to Puerto Rico residents but he called on congress to amend the Social Security Act to extend those benefits.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in April 2020 that the prevailing federal practice of denying the benefits was unconstitutional. During the Trump administration the Justice Department petitioned for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, which it accepted on March 1.

President Biden said the Justice Department would challenge a court decision that the federal government must provide SSI benefits to Puerto Rico residents.

Bloomberg News

Biden’s Justice Department plans to submit a brief in the case, United States v. Vaello Madero, to the Supreme Court on Monday.

In his campaign Biden said he supported providing SSI benefits to Puerto Rico residents.

“The Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences,” Biden said. “This practice is critical to the department’s mission of preserving the rule of law.”

On Monday Biden said, “I call on Congress to amend the Social Security Act to extend these benefits to residents of Puerto Rico.”

In the 50 states SSI benefits are given to poor people unable to work because of disabilities or advanced age and to poor families who have children with disabilities.

In its May 2020 fiscal plan for Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Oversight Board said of the appeals court decision, “The court’s finding is consequential, but the path forward is highly uncertain.”

“If SSI benefits were ultimately extended to eligible residents of Puerto Rico, initial analysis suggests that it could provide over $1 billion in incremental annual federal transfers to Puerto Rico,” the board continued. “This amount would undoubtedly be welcome support to qualifying residents across the island and could enable some level of increased consumption. The ultimate economic impact of these transfers is unclear, however, and will be examined in future fiscal plans.”

The board’s 2021 fiscal plan did not mention the Vaello Madero case.

On Monday Biden said for Puerto Rico he is also supporting eliminating Medicaid funding caps, enhancing the Child Tax Credit, and funding an Earned Income Tax Credit program.

The SSI lawsuit the Supreme Court agreed to hear involves plaintiff José Luis Vaello Madero, who began receiving SSI disability benefits while living in New York State. He continued to receive them after moving back to his native Puerto Rico to be closer to family in July 2013.

The federal government sued him in August 2017 seeking restitution of $28,081 in SSI benefits that it said it had incorrectly paid to him from August 2013 to August 2016. The government said he was living outside the United States.

Vaello Madero filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal law that excludes residents of Puerto Rico from SSI while including U.S. citizens living in another U.S. territory, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. U.S. citizens living in three other territories — American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — are also excluded.

Brian Tumulty contributed to this story

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