President Joe Biden announced on June 7 he will direct the Department of Justice (DOJ) to defend the move to exclude Puerto Rico residents from receiving Social Security Income benefits if they’re elderly, disabled, or blind, as well as low income—adhering to the same policy as his predecessor, President Donald Trump.
In a statement, the president said the agency will defend the constitutionality of federal law in a challenge against a provision in the Social Security Act that excludes Puerto Rico, an unincorporated commonwealth under U.S. jurisdiction. Biden added that he opposes the Supplemental Security Income provision in question, but says the DOJ has the duty to defend the policy in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This provision is inconsistent with my administration’s policies and values,” Biden stated. “However, the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences. This practice is critical to the department’s mission of preserving the rule of law. Consistent with this important practice, the Department is defending the constitutionality of the Social Security Act provision in this case.”
Biden called on Congress to amend the law so residents of the commonwealth are no longer excluded from receiving Social Security benefits.
“And as I reiterated in my first budget request, I also support eliminating Medicaid funding caps for Puerto Rico and moving toward parity for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to align with States,” Biden’s said in a statement posted on the White House website.
The president also touted the recent COVID-19 stimulus packages for providing more benefits to Puerto Ricans.
Last year, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a resident of Puerto Rico, Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, who was eligible for Social Security benefits in New York state, but lost them when he moved to Puerto Rico several years ago.
Social Security benefits are available for U.S. citizens living in all 50 states, Washington, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Other than Puerto Rico residents, U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam residents also aren’t eligible to receive the benefits.
The decision not to include Puerto Rico was made by Congress when it enacted the program in 1972. Puerto Ricans are eligible for a different program, called Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled, which allows for more local control, but not as much federal funding, the DOJ said in court documents.
Some Puerto Ricans have complained that the Caribbean commonwealth’s residents are treated worse than other Americans despite being U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico, which isn’t a state, is the most populous of the U.S. territories, with a population of roughly 3 million people.
Reuters contributed to this report.