US court upholds SSI for Puerto Ricans in key ruling

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The U.S. Court of Appeals issued a key ruling on Friday that allows anyone from Puerto Rico to apply for Supplemental Security Income at a time when the U.S. territory is mired in a 13-year recession.

The decision comes after the federal government filed a lawsuit seeking to recover more than $28,000 in SSI disability benefits paid to a U.S. citizen after he moved from New York to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to care for his wife.

One of the man’s attorneys, New York-based Hermann Ferre, told The Associated Press that an estimated 700,000 people in Puerto Rico qualify for SSI.

“This is a significant case,” he said.

The ruling involved the case of José Luis Vaello Madero, who lived in New York from 1985 until 2013, when he moved to Puerto Rico. He continued to receive payments until 2016, when he was told he was ineligible. The Social Security Administration then filed civil action against him in 2017 demanding he return the funds he received.

SSI benefits are awarded to help elderly, blind and disabled people who struggle financially. The benefits are available to any U.S. citizen living in any of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Mariana Islands. However, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam are excluded, while American Samoa is not eligible.

Puerto Rico instead has a program called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled. To qualify, people have to make $65 or less a month, compared with $750 monthly for SSI. In addition, the average benefit received in Puerto Rico under that program is $77 a month, compared with $533 with SSI. The island of 3.2 million people has a poverty rate of more than 40 percent, higher than any U.S. state.

The U.S. Court of Appeals noted in its 45-page ruling that the federal government in part offered two explanations for excluding Puerto Rico residents: the island’s unique tax status and the costs of extending the program to those living in the U.S. territory. As part of its response, the court stated: “The residents of Puerto Rico not only make substantial contributions to the federal treasury, but in fact have consistently made them in higher amounts than taxpayers in at least six states, as well as the territory of the Northern Mariana Islands.”

Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, praised Friday’s ruling.

“Puerto Rico’s territorial status has been the root of discrimination against U.S. citizens on the island,” she said.

Ferre said he expects the federal government will likely appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.