In the shadow of U.S. Supreme Court history, a Puerto Rican family struggles


  • Highest U.S. court to hear Puerto Rico rights case on November 9
  • Century-old decisions limited the rights of American territory

TOA ALTA, Puerto Rico, September 28 (Reuters) – Emanuel Rivera Fuentes, severely disabled since birth and lying in the bed he shares with his parents in Puerto Rico, recites a list of 14 medications he needs to take daily for health problems, including cerebral palsy.

Medication is only one aspect of the care he needs, a burden that falls largely on his parents, Abraham Rivera Berrios and Gladys Fuentes Lozada, who adopted him when he was a baby and never saw him. he only had a few weeks to live.

Now 35, Rivera Fuentes spends most of her days in her bedroom in the family’s modest teal-colored house in Toa Alta, a town about 20 miles west of the U.S. Territory’s capital. of the Caribbean, San Juan. He cannot walk and needs help with basic chores.

As a resident of Puerto Rico and not the mainland United States, he is denied a federal benefit worth several hundred dollars a month that other Americans are generally eligible to receive. He and his family argue the denial is illegal and hope the U.S. Supreme Court will rectify the matter soon.

The question is whether the US Congress has unconstitutionally denied the benefit of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to residents of Puerto Rico. The nine judges, whose new nine-month terms begin next Monday, are expected to hear arguments in a case on the issue on November 9.

“It’s discrimination,” Rivera Berrios, 70, said in Spanish, as her son listened from his bed, with a Christian cross attached with a safety pin next to his striped pillow. “We are American citizens living in Puerto Rico. We are not receiving it. It is discrimination.”

The family sued the U.S. Social Security Administration for access to SSI benefits, arguing that the exclusion violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee that all people are treated equally under the law.

Their lawsuit is on hold while the Supreme Court considers the case in a similar case sued by fellow Puerto Rican resident Jose Luis Vaello Madero, who received SSI benefits while living in New York City but lost his eligibility when he moved to the territory in 2013.

More than 300,000 residents of Puerto Rico could be eligible for the benefit at a cost of $ 2 billion per year, the federal government said.

Puerto Rico struggles with a high rate of poverty. Its 3 million inhabitants have also been shaken in recent years by a financial crisis, Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have complained about their treatment by the US government. Puerto Rican politics are divided between those who want to remain a semi-independent Commonwealth, those who prefer the American state, and those who favor independence.

The Supreme Court has been instrumental in defining the legal status of Puerto Ricans, dating back to a series of rulings beginning over a century ago called “island cases,” some steeped in racist language. The rulings endorsed the idea that residents of newly acquired US territories could receive different treatment than citizens living in US states.

The upcoming case gives judges the opportunity to step back or even quash island cases.

“The court should recognize that the underlying premise of these cases was fundamentally racist,” Pedro Pierluisi, pro-state governor of Puerto Rico, said in an interview.

In Puerto Rico, island cases are viewed in the same way as the widely deplored Supreme Court rulings, notably Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), who confirmed racial segregation, and Korematsu v. United States (1944), which authorized Japanese-American internment. during the Second World War. The court then repudiated the two decisions.


The island cases helped demarcate the rights of the newly acquired territory, previously a Spanish colony. They established that Puerto Ricans and those living in other U.S. territories do not have the same constitutional rights as people living in U.S. states. Congress later granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, although they could not vote in federal elections.

A 1901 Supreme Court decision titled Downes v. Bidwell included an opinion written by Justice Henry Billings Brown, who five years earlier had drafted the Plessy v. Ferguson endorsing “separate but equal” racial segregation. Brown referred to territories “inhabited by extraterrestrial races” which may not be possible to rule on the basis of “Anglo-Saxon principles”.

Justice Edward Douglass White endorsed the idea that the United States can take “an unknown island, populated by an uncivilized race” without conferring citizenship. Such language conflicted with how the United States previously approached the rights of other territories, usually ruled by white settlers, which ultimately gained state status.

While some judges over the years have deplored the island cases, the court has never categorically repudiated them.

The court, which has a Conservative 6-3 majority, could decide the upcoming case without looking into those earlier rulings. But Vaello Madero’s lawyers said a ruling against him would confirm the Insular Cases’ “fundamental premise”.

President Joe Biden’s administration does not explicitly rely on island affairs to defend the SSI exclusion, instead citing later rulings based on Puerto Rico’s “single tax status”, including exempting its residents from federal income tax.

It’s an argument some Puerto Ricans, including the governor, have said inconsistent with Biden’s June statement defending his administration’s decision to pursue the case while asking Congress to expand benefits like the ISS in Porto. Rico.

“There cannot be second class citizens in the United States of America,” Biden said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Danielle Blevins said there was “no tension” between Biden’s position and the department’s legal arguments which she said “fulfilled its traditional duty to defend laws promulgated by Congress “.

Emanuel Rivera Fuentes’ parents are struggling to pay the bills as they hope to secure SSI benefits to help buy equipment, including a ramp and a new wheelchair for him. For them, the SSI exclusion sends the message that they are not considered fully American.

“You feel unprotected,” Rivera Berrios said. “If you have rights but don’t receive them, you are annoyed and disappointed. You lose faith in the government. You feel betrayed.”

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone


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