Court Rejects Second Class Citizenship for Puerto Rico

U.S. District Judge Gustavo Gelpí handed down an unusual decision.

The case, U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, looked at an individual who lost his Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits when he moved to Puerto Rico. He continued to receive the benefits for several years, since he (and apparently the Social Security Administration) didn’t realize that he wasn’t supposed to receive them. When Social Security sued for payback of their $28,081, Vaello-Madero sued them instead. The judge agreed that it wasn’t right that he should lose his benefits because he moved to a territory.

“There is increased national awareness of [Puerto Rico’s] existence and political consensus against its disparate treatment,”the judge said. In other words, more Americans now know that Puerto Rico is a territory and that territories are not treated equally with states.

In an opinion in 2018, Gelpi acknowledged that previous court cases had determined that Congress could treat Puerto Rico differently from states as long as there was “a rational basis” for those differences. One example of an idea that has been counted as a “rational basis” for different treatment is the claim that Puerto Ricans “do not contribute to the federal treasury.” This is not the case, as Gelpi pointed out, since residents of Puerto Rico pay federal payroll taxes.

In the new opinion, Gelpi says firmly that “Classifying a group of the Nation’s poor and medically neediest United States citizens as ‘second tier’ simply because they reside in Puerto Rico is by no means rational.”

Gelpi also pointed out that the United States never considers the cost of a program in determining which states should be covered under any program. Since this information is not used in decisions about states, he said, it is not rational to use it in decisions about territories.

In the new opinion, Gelpi makes a bolder statement. “It is in the Court’s responsibility to protect these rights if the other branches do not,” he said of the protection offered by the U.S. Constitution. “Allowing a United States citizen in Puerto Rico that is poor and disabled to be denied SSI disability payments creates an impermissible second rate citizenship akin to that premised on race and amounts to Congress switching off the Constitution. All United States citizens must trust that their fundamental constitutional rights will be safeguarded everywhere within the Nation, be in a State or Territory.”

The Insular Cases, often used to justify discrimination against Puerto Rico, determined that the  U.S. Constitution didn’t have to apply to Puerto Rico in exactly the same way it applied to states. Only “fundamental rights” apply. However, the court never said which rights were fundamental. Gelpi says, “Equal Protection and Due Process are fundamental rights afforded to every United States citizen,including those who under the United States flag make Puerto Rico their home.”

At another point in his opinion, Gelpi writes that Congress doesn’t get to create second class citizenship conditions. “To hold otherwise would run afoul of the sacrosanct principle embodied in the Declaration of Independence that ‘All Men are Created Equal’.”

Gelpi notes that the position of a territory is a powerless one. “United States citizens residing in Puerto Rico are the very essence of a politically powerless group, with no Presidential nor Congressional vote, and with only a non-voting Resident Commissioner representing their interests in Congress,” Gelpi wrote.

He concludes that it is even more important to protect the rights of people in Puerto Rico because of this.

Puerto Rico has been a powerless territory for too long. It is time for statehood.

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