Omar Aquino and Cristina H. Pacione-Zayas: Puerto Rico is a federal territory that deserves federal aid

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Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court decisively rejected the principle of equality under the law when it comes to Puerto Rico. While seemingly limited in scope, we must not minimize the far-reaching implications of the court´s 8-1 decision in United States v. Vaello Madero.

The case challenged Congress´ exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from the Supplemental Security Income program. This federal program provides crucial aid to individuals with the least access to financial security in our communities — older adults, those with diverse ability needs and those living in extreme poverty.

A 2011 estimate suggested that over 300,000 Puerto Rican residents would be eligible for SSI. This systematic lack of funding fundamentally limits a people’s struggle for self-determination and self-actualization.

The Supreme Court advanced a fallacious argument to justify this discrimination by appealing to Puerto Rico’s unique tax status, claiming that contributing less is compatible with receiving less.

However, such reasoning is not applied to states that consistently contribute far less than others. Should states that pay very little in federal taxes be denied some or all access to the program? Under this logic, the SSI program, which is specifically designed to offer relief to financially insecure households, would pay less to the citizens that need it the most. On the contrary, the SSI program continues to help those most in need, precisely because they are in no position to contribute.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only dissenter, plainly laid out this irrational logic, pointing out that SSI is a program the federal government administers to its citizens directly — not through states or jurisdictions, whatever their tax burden may be. How then, can the court decide to force people like Jose Vaello-Madero to give up their SSI benefits if they move from one jurisdiction to another, even if they’ve already qualified?

Sotomayor’s compelling arguments center on constitutional protections and tests of rationality — standing in stark contrast with the majority’s use of unequal reasoning and misapplied precedents.

And yet, if the court’s logic is contrary to the very nature of the SSI program, why did such a clear 8-1 majority support it?

Because to affirm the inequity of the territorial system is to uphold a centuries-old precedent. The Constitution has long been interpreted through the “Insular Cases” that explicitly allow Congress to disregard the Constitution when it comes to Puerto Rico, crippling Puerto Ricans’ ability to appeal for constitutional protections like due process and equality under the law.

Justice Neil Gorsuch admits as much in his concurring opinion:

“A century ago in the Insular Cases, this Court held that the federal government could rule Puerto Rico and other Territories largely without regard to the Constitution. It is past time to acknowledge the gravity of this error and admit what we know to be true: The Insular Cases have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes. They deserve no place in our law.”

The end result is that, under these precedents, the Supreme Court is allowed to advance arguments that could only be deemed reasonable when applied to colonies, especially when it comes to federal benefits, self-government and legal protections. The court could have taken this opportunity to overrule this legal framework. They instead reinforce it.

The decision once again affirms that the Constitution and its protections apply only partially to territories and confirms that a government that rules without consent or principle has a name — colonial. If the U.S. government cannot be persuaded to follow its own Constitution when it comes to the territories, it should not hold any territories at all. Full stop. To continue this state of affairs is to perpetuate legally sanctioned colonialism.

How can Puerto Rican advocates continue their fight for fair treatment? The highest court in the land has just told them that as long as Puerto Rico is a colony, its people have only very limited claims to the inalienable rights endowed upon them by their Creator, among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It does so while the U.S. government continues to deny them a meaningful decolonization process. Puerto Ricans are now left with no claims to justice within the colony and no just way out of the colony.

I hope we, across the state of Illinois and the rest of the 50 states, can join in the prescient call of Illinois Sen. William E. Mason, who drafted a resolution a year after Puerto Rico was invaded by the U.S. declaring:

“Whereas all just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed: Therefore be it RESOLVED BY THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, That the Government of the United States of America will not attempt to govern the people of any other country in the world without the consent of the people themselves, or subject them by force to our dominion against their will.”

State Sen. Omar Aquino represents Illinois’ 2nd District. Cristina H. Pacione-Zayas, also a state senator, represents the 20th District.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

via Chicago Tribune

April 26, 2022 at 07:35PM

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