Biden’s Failure in PR Legal Case Heightens Statehood Issue

Imagine you are one of the 8 million Americans who qualify for SSI benefits — supplemental security income that provides relief to those with limited resources, income, or a disability. You’ve worked hard your entire life, and now, through no fault of your own, you cannot meet even your basic needs to stay afloat. For millions of Americans, that’s their everyday reality. Programs like SSI provide a modest cash boost to the nation’s most vulnerable families: those caring for the almost 1.2 million children with disabilities, and the elderly. If ever a population defined the need for a social safety net, it would be SSI recipients. Thankfully, the program exists and, however modest, the monthly support makes a difference. 

Unless you live in Puerto Rico. Because of the island’s current territory status, Congress can and does discriminate against these fellow U.S. citizens in multiple ways, like excluding them from SSI benefits. The impact of territorial inequality has been immensely challenging for Puerto Rico in recent years, particularly when faced with multiple natural disasters including the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the 2020 earthquakes, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Yet, the frustration many Puerto Ricans feel toward the federal government goes beyond immediate responses to natural disasters. The long-term lack of equality under federal laws and programs, including SSI benefits, represents the abject failure of the federal government to listen to and respect the will of the majority of voters in Puerto Rico. In 2012, 2017, and again in 2020, voters on the island rejected territorial inequality, favoring statehood above all the other non-territory options at the polls. 

Statehood for Puerto Rico would provide 3.2 million U.S. citizens equal treatment under federal laws and programs, which would not just help with immediate disaster recovery but with long-term social needs like those supported by SSI benefits. Statehood would empower Puerto Rico to make significant economic progress by eliminating the uncertainty of the undefined and undemocratic territory status, which would attract investment. It would also provide equal voting rights and representation in the U.S. Congress, which makes the federal laws Puerto Ricans live under, as well as a vote for president, which they are currently denied. As full partners, Puerto Ricans would also share responsibility for the Union’s obligations by paying federal income tax, the only tax not fully applicable to local residents. 

Thankfully, there is reason to hope that the century-long nightmare of Puerto Rico territorial inequality is finally coming to an end. During last year’s campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden made it clear that he personally supports statehood for Puerto Rico, and that the federal government should respect the will of local voters. Then, on the same day as the 2020 general election, a clear majority of voters in Puerto Rico said “YES” to statehood and the citizen equality that comes with it. And recently, Florida Sens. Rick Scott, who is chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Marco Rubio reasserted their support for statehood, showing that this issue has bipartisan support. 

While Congress continues to debate proposed legislation to permanently end Puerto Rico’s territorial inequality and establish a path to statehood, the Biden administration was recently given an opportunity to make immediate progress toward equality for Puerto Rico in the U.S. Supreme Court case of United States v. Vaello-Madero. The case addresses whether a provision in the Social Security Act that declines to provide Puerto Rico residents with SSI violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause. 

Yet, in a baffling move, President Biden failed to show with actions what he promised with his words and allowed the Department of Justice to defend the right of the federal government to continue discriminating against the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. Biden’s statement that such discrimination is “inconsistent with my administration’s policies and values,” and that “there can be no second-class citizens in the United States of America,” while simultaneously failing to direct the DOJ to act on his supposed values and policies shows that either he failed to exercise true leadership within his own administration on this issue, or his values and policies are meaningless for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. 

It remains to be seen what the Supreme Court will decide in this SSI case, and whether Congress addresses this specific aspect of territorial inequality. But, if President Biden still wants to show that he is a man of his word, then he must take action by supporting legislation to permanently end territorial discrimination and second-class citizenship for the people of Puerto Rico through statehood. It’s time for all American citizens to get the help they deserve and it is time for the Biden administration to uphold its promises to the people of Puerto Rico. 

Jose Fuentes is the former attorney general of Puerto Rico and is chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council.

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