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AG Says Territorial Residents Are Entitled To Same Benefits As People On Mainland

WASHINGTON — The Virgin Islands Attorney General’s Office has joined the legal fight for parity in Supplemental Security Income benefits denied to territorial residents in the Supreme Court case United States v. Vaello Madero.

The case challenges the fact that otherwise eligible citizens can be denied Supplemental Security Income (SSI) simply because they happen to live in Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories, according to a statement from the nonprofit, Equally American.

Vaello Madero “was stripped” of his Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, after moving from New York to Puerto Rico and has “filed a powerful response that the continuing denial of SSI benefits is not just unconstitutional, but would represent a dangerous continuation of the Insular Cases’ doctrine of ‘separate and unequal’ status for residents of U.S. territories,” according to the news release.

“This historic case will once again provide the Supreme Court the choice to either turn the page on continued discrimination against citizens in the territories who remain politically disenfranchised or continue the dark legacy of the Insular Cases,” according to a statement from Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American, which supports equality for the 3.5 million citizens living in U.S. territories – 98 percent of whom are racial or ethnic minorities.

Virgin Islands Attorney General Denise George issued a statement Wednesday on the Virgin Islands government’s amicus brief filed in support of Vaello Madero.

“Soon after I took office in mid-2019, Governor Bryan expressed to me his dismay that Virgin Islands residents who are U.S. citizens were not equally entitled to SSI benefits as their stateside counterparts,” she said. “The Madero case being argued before the Supreme Court now presented the perfect opportunity for us to do something about it by joining the court fight against unequal treatment by the federal government in SSI and other federal programs.”

Unlike the states, the constitutional rights and equality of U.S. citizens do not automatically apply to unincorporated territories. Instead, the civil and constitutional rights of the inhabitants of such territories like the Virgin Islands, are determined by an Act of Congress, such as our Revised Organic Act, the attorney general said.

As stated in the GVI’s amicus brief, the disparate treatment by the federal government of unincorporated territories is grounded historically in the racial and cultural bias of the United States against inhabitants of the territories, beginning about 1901 in a series of racially charged Supreme Court Decisions called the Insular Cases, AG George said. The GVI’s amicus brief supports Madero in the case and asks the court to reverse the insular cases and afford equal treatment and equal protection to Virgin Islanders and other inhabitants of “unincorporated” territories in SSI and other federal benefits, according to George.

United States v. Vaello-Madero will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in its upcoming 2021-2022 term. The counsel of record representing the V.I. Government is Geoffrey Eaton, Esquire of Winston and Strawn, LLC.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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