FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 8, 2021
Hispanic Federation Proudly Joins LatinoJustice in Amicus Brief Asking Supreme Court for Parity in Benefits
NEW YORK — Yesterday, LatinoJustice PRLDEF (“LatinoJustice”) and Kasowitz Benson Torres (“Kasowitz”) submitted an amicus “friend of the court” brief to the United States Supreme Court in the Puerto Rico equal protection case, United States v. Vaello-Madero., which specifically focuses on Puerto Rico. The brief requests that the U.S. Supreme Court overrules the Insular Cases, which essentially held that Puerto Ricans were “unfit” to handle the full rights and duties of citizenship, on the grounds that these cases have no place in modern American jurisprudence. It also asks the court to affirm under a strict scrutiny review the lower court’s holding that the Social Security Act’s (SSA) classification of Puerto Rico as being “outside the United States” for purposes of disability benefits violates the equal protection rights of Puerto Ricans under the Fifth Amendment.
Under the SSA, Congress grants certain disability benefits to persons residing in the fifty states and the District of Columbia, but deprives Puerto Ricans of those benefits on the purported basis that Puerto Rico is “outside the United States.” This classification of Puerto Rico being “outside the United States” harkens to the Insular Cases’ notorious description of Puerto Rico as being “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense” and the Supreme Court’s resultant refusal to provide Puerto Ricans with the Constitution’s full panoply of protections. The assumptions and rationales for the holdings in the Insular Cases are rife with racial animus and prejudice, and the cases openly refuse to provide Puerto Ricans with their constitutional rights due to “differences of race,” describing Puerto Rico as “alien territory” and Puerto Ricans as “savage” and “uncivilized.”
Although cloaked in terms of geography, the SSA’s classification of Puerto Rico impermissibly targets a discrete and politically powerless racial and ethnic minority—Puerto Ricans. The precision targeting of Puerto Ricans in the SSA reflects a century of discrimination that Puerto Ricans have suffered under the law. This prohibition of the provision of disability benefits to Puerto Ricans violates the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee.
"SSI provides monthly income to needy individuals, adults and children, who are disabled or blind, as well as people aged 65 and over," said Lourdes M. Rosado, LatinoJustice PRLDEF president and general counsel. “By denying this benefit to 3.3 million Puerto Ricans residing on the island, Congress has created a two-tier system of citizenship: those entitled to all the lawful benefits and constitutional protections of this country and second-class citizens, Puerto Ricans, who are granted some but not others, only because of their race and ethnicity. It is more than time for Congress to right this wrong and afford Puerto Ricans equal benefits and protections under the laws of the United States, as they deserve."
“The Insular Cases, which were originally decided by the same court that adopted the ‘separate but equal’ standard in Plessy v. Ferguson, are premised on racial and ethnic animus against Puerto Ricans,” said Hector Torres, co-founding partner of Kasowitz Benson Torres. “These cases serve only to deprive Puerto Ricans of the full protection of the Constitution by treating them as second-class citizens under the law. The time has come for the Supreme Court to make plain what is already obvious—the Insular Cases were gravely wrong when they were decided and have no place in our jurisprudence.”
LatinoJustice and Kasowitz join ten additional amici, including some of the country’s most prominent Latino organizations and bar associations. The ten organizations include Dominican Bar Association, Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey, Hispanic Federation, Hispanic National Bar Association, Hudson Valley Hispanic Bar Association, Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County, Long Island Hispanic Bar Association, Puerto Rican Bar Association, Inc. (NY), Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida, and the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Illinois. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments during the 2021-2022 term on a date to be determined regarding whether Congress violated the equal-protection component of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment by establishing Supplemental Security Income in the fifty states and the District of Columbia, as well as in the Northern Mariana Islands pursuant to a negotiated covenant, but not Puerto Rico.
“We hope that the Supreme Court recognizes that citizens of Puerto Rico are entitled to equal protection of the laws, just like any other U.S. citizen,” said Elia Diaz-Yaeger, national president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. “This is not only a constitutional imperative but also a fundamental requirement of fairness and equity.”
"U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico have long been subject to unfair treatment and lack of parity when it comes to receiving federal benefits. The United States’ denial of SSI benefits is an unconstitutional continuation of these same types of policies. Vaello-Madero's case stands on firm Constitutional ground establishing that people cannot be treated differently or given different benefits based on where they live. That is exactly what is happening to the people of Puerto Rico and other territories of the U.S.," said Frankie Miranda, president and CEO of Hispanic Federation. "Vaello-Madero stepped forward to represent the thousands of U.S. citizens just like him, who are the victims of this discrimination based solely on where they reside. U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico deserve the same treatment as those living in Mississippi or New York.”
“The Puerto Rican Bar Association, Inc. (NY), one of the oldest Latino bar associations in the country, earnestly joins Latino Justice and Kasowitz as amici and implores the U.S. Supreme Court to finally overrule the Insular Cases, which remain an abhorrent stain on this nation’s jurisprudence,” said Steven Cordero, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, Inc. (NY).