Island affairs: time to turn the page


Puerto Ricans are US citizens, but they are only entitled to all the benefits and rights of citizenship as long as they do not live in their home country.

This is due, in large part, to the decisions of the United States Supreme Court of the early 20th century known as Island cases , which declared residents of the so-called “unincorporated territories” unworthy of the same constitutional rights and benefits as citizens of the states and the District of Columbia. the Island cases said that these people were unworthy of rights because they were “alien races” and “wild tribes.”

According to the late Judge Juan Torruella, Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, these cases “authorized the colonial regime created by Congress, which allowed the United States to continue its administration and their exploitation of the territories acquired from Spain. after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Torruelle Explain that these cases violate the US Constitution.

Federal courts continue to rely on and misapply the Island cases denying residents of U.S. territories constitutional rights and protections such as citizenship and equal benefits. Inexplicably, the Biden administration refused to repudiate the Island cases and continues to rely on them to deny Puerto Ricans and others the benefits necessary for their survival.

Island cases have been widely criticized

The racist Island cases have been widely criticized. In United States vs. Vaello-Maderocurrently before the Supreme Court, numerous advocacy organizations, attorneys general, labor groups, states and territories, professional associations, public benefits specialists and others have filed more than 20 amicus briefs supporting José Luis Vaello-Madero, a disabled Puerto Rican who received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) while living in New York. The federal government brought the case after Vaello-Madero returned to Puerto Rico, suing for $28,000 in overpayments and cutting his disability benefits.

The SSI program is a national benefit for the elderly, blind and disabled. However, this is only available for residents of the 50 states, DC and the Northern Mariana Islands, with residents of all other territories excluded. The program currently provides monthly payments of $841 for individuals and $1,261 for a couple.

The government admits Island cases Are pejorative

During the pleadings of Vaello Maderothe Ministry of Justice, in a hurry to articulate the government’s position on the Island cases, recognized that “some of the reasoning and rhetoric has obviously been anathema, for decades, if not from the beginning”.

This point of view is shared by the United States House of Representatives, which adopted a resolution denounce the Island cases as “contrary to the text and history” of the U.S. Constitution and based on “opinions and racial stereotypes from the time of Plessy v. Ferguson which have long been rejected.

In Plessythe Supreme Court justified racial segregation giving rise to the “separate but equal” doctrine which was struck down almost 60 years later in Brown v. Board of Education. It is appalling that the Biden administration continues to rely on legal precedent set primarily by the same court that decided Plessy, establish the abominable regime of Jim Crow.

How the Island cases Affect real people?

One of the tragic consequences of maintaining the Island cases on books is its direct impact on maintaining poverty, especially among people with disabilities.

For example, Vaello Madero involves the denial of SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico. By denying poor and disabled residents of Puerto Rico SSI payment on the base benefit of approximately $64 under Puerto Rico’s Elderly, Blind, and Disabled (AABD) program, the U.S. government continues to keep Puerto Rico poor.

According to statistics according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly one in six, or 15.1% of its population of approximately 3 million, is disabled, compared to 8.6% of the US population. In addition, nearly half of Puerto Rico’s residents with disabilities live in poverty, double the US average.

If more than 1.3 million Puerto Ricans are poor and about 450,000 are disabled, denying federal benefits to residents of Puerto Rico is a travesty of justice.

As the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico held in Peña Martinez vs. HHS, “it is unconstitutional to “otherwise” deny eligible persons Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy (LIS) benefits solely because of their residence in Puerto Rico”.

Incredibly, the Biden administration is currently appealing this case in the First Circuit.

Outcry over island cases cannot be ignored

In November 2021, many organizations joined the Hispanic Federation in request President Biden will withdraw the government’s appeal in Vaello Madero as well as Pena Martinez and stop relying on Island cases in litigation. Earlier this year, various prominent civil and human rights organizations joined the American Civil Liberties Union to call the DOJ to “clarify that the Island cases and the racism they represent are no longer sanctioned by the federal government.

The Biden administration should withdraw all calls related to the Island cases and condemn them publicly in accordance with his declaration that “Puerto Ricans are American citizens and…are entitled to and deserve the same support…as any citizen.”

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Lia Fiol-Matta is a senior attorney for LatinoJustice PRLDEF where her work focuses on economic justice and issues related to Puerto Rico. She is part of a team that filed an amicus brief supporting the extension of SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico in U.S. v. Vaello Madero.


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