NEW YORK – Father Enrique Camacho’s grandmother died on February 2 after long battles with dementia and metastatic cancer. She did not receive Social Security income (SSI) and the family could not afford 24-hour home nurses, so Camcho’s aunt quit her job and slept for the last two years in the hallway next to her grandmother’s room to provide care.
Camacho’s grandfather, also deceased, was a World War II veteran who served more than 30 years for the U.S. Army at Fort Buchanan Military Base in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. He also did not receive SSI benefits in his older years.
Camacho told Crux his family’s story to shed light on the need for people in Puerto Rico to receive SSI benefits and the hardships people go through without them after the Supreme Court on April 21 refused to mandate that Congress extend federal disability benefits to residents of Puerto Rico Rico.
He said the decision of the country’s Supreme Court was surprising and makes him very sad.
“It is not constitutional to give some American citizens benefits and not others. The Constitution is for everyone,” said Camacho, a lifelong resident of Puerto Rico and CEO of Caritas Puerto Rico. “We are human beings. We are families. We are suffering. It is something really important, especially when you are older and when you are disabled to receive help. ”
SSI is a federal program that provides monthly payments to adults and children with disabilities or blindness below certain financial limits, as well as people 65 and older without disabilities who meet certain financial requirements.
The program extends to people living in one of the 50 states, Washington DC or the Northern Mariana Islands. An exception is made for children of military parents who have been assigned permanent service outside the United States and certain students temporarily abroad. It does not include residents of the other U.S. territories, even if they are U.S. citizens.
The Supreme Court had an option to change it on April 21 and ensure residents of Puerto Rico receive SSI benefits, but in an 8-1 ruling in the case USA vs. Vaello Madro – a case challenging the constitutionality of excluding Puerto Ricans from the program – the judges chose to leave the decision in the hands of Congress.
“The Constitution gives Congress a significant discretion as to how to structure federal tax and benefit programs for residents of the territories,” said the court’s opinion, delivered by Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
“Show that discretion, Congress able to prolong [SSI] benefits for residents of Puerto Rico… But the limited question for the court is whether the Congress under the Constitution must prolong [SSI] to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent as residents of the States, ”the statement continued. “The answer is no.”
Kavanaugh also reasoned that the opposite decision by the court would have “potential far-reaching consequences.” He noted that Congress currently exempts residents of Puerto Rico from most federal income, gift, property, and excise duties, nor has it extended all federal benefits, including SSI, to them.
Therefore, Kavanaugh argued that if this decision went the other way, Congress would likely have to extend other federal benefits and programs to residents of territories in the same way that these programs cover the states, which could cause citizens to oppose and insist on , that federal income taxes are imposed on residents of Puerto Rico and other territories. This could “impose significant new economic burdens on the people of Puerto Rico, with serious consequences for the people of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rico economy,” the judge noted.
In the lone dissenting opinion, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents are Puerto Rican-born, argued that “the constitutional command does not allow Congress to ignore the equally weighty constitutional order that it treat American citizens equally.”
“Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the whims of the political process,” Sotomayor argued. “Because Puerto Ricans do not have congressional representation, they cannot rely on their elected representatives to remedy the penal differences that Puerto Ricans suffer under the unequal treatment of Congress.”
Camacho said part of the shock of the Supreme Court ruling was its 8-1 character, especially given that the decision was about “humanity” and “mercy,” and some of the judges who ruled against expanding the SSI goods are Christian or Catholic.
However, Camacho noted that because the decision is ultimately in the hands of Congress, he still hopes that residents of Puerto Rico will one day receive SSI benefits. He challenges both Supreme Court justices and federal lawmakers to visit Puerto Rico and see the difficulties people themselves are experiencing.
“Every day I see a lot of people who are older, who are completely alone, living in subhuman conditions,” Camacho said. “We see houses that are really dirty with nothing in the fridge, and when you see some old people like that, it hurts, and I see it very often.”
“If they see what families are going through, they can change their mind because it’s not about a party or politics, it’s about giving people what they deserve because we are a part,” he added.
The Biden administration has signaled its support for Puerto Ricans who receive SSI benefits. With the ball in the congressional court, however, Camacho said the most important thing is that the people of Puerto Rico share the stories of them and their families.
“I think people like me should share their stories because people on the mainland should know what’s really going on,” Camacho said. “It really is something that people should share their reality because this is my story, but there are many more like mine or worse.”
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