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U.S. Supreme Court Allows Puerto Rico’s Exclusion From Welfare Program

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court this week rejected a bid to extend a federal program offering benefits to low-income elderly, blind and disabled people to residents of Puerto Rico, finding that Congress had the authority to prevent those living in the American territory from receiving the assistance.

The justices ruled 8-1 in favor of President Joe Biden’s administration, reversing a lower court’s ruling that a 1972 decision by Congress to exclude Puerto Rico from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program violated a U.S. Constitution requirement that laws apply equally to everyone.

The ruling denies the welfare benefits to an estimated 300,000 people on the Caribbean island who otherwise might qualify. The federal government has said an expansion covering Puerto Rico would have cost $2 billion a year.

“Enough of this colonial status that discriminates against us and affects our quality of life. The only and the best solution is statehood,” Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor, said in a statement.

Puerto Rico’s status is a divisive issue on the island, with some favoring remaining a territory while others push for statehood or even independence from the United States.

The ruling, authored by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, found that Congress acted validly under a constitutional provision letting lawmakers treat territories differently than states.

U.S. Supreme Court Allows Puerto Rico's Exclusion From Welfare Program
Visitors walk their dogs across the Supreme Court Plaza during a storm on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 22, 2022. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

Kavanaugh said a ruling extending benefits to Puerto Rico could have “far-reaching consequences” inflicting additional financial burdens on its residents — including that they be required to pay federal income tax, which they do not currently do.

“The Constitution does not require that extreme outcome,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, was the sole dissenter. Sotomayor pointed out that as the island does not have voting representation in Congress, its people cannot rely on Congress to recognize their rights.

“Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process,” Sotomayor wrote.

A provision extending SSI benefits to Puerto Rico is part of Democratic-backed social spending legislation that has stalled in Congress.

Jose Luis Vaello Madero, the disabled 67-year-old man at the center of the case, received SSI benefits when he lived in New York but lost eligibility when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013. The U.S. government sued him in federal court in Washington in 2017 seeking more than $28,000 for SSI payments he received after moving to Puerto Rico.

“It is unfortunate the court failed to see the discrimination faced by the most needy Puerto Rican Americans whose only distinguishing feature is that they choose to remain in Puerto Rico, their home on U.S. soil. This is a devastating day for Mr. Vaello Madero and for Puerto Rico,” said Hermann Ferre, Vaello Madero’s lawyer.

The United States Justice Department declined comment.

Many Puerto Ricans have long complained that the island’s residents are treated worse than other Americans despite being U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico, which is not a state, is the most-populous of the U.S. territories, with about 3 million people.

SSI benefits are available to American citizens living in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

The Supreme Court has been instrumental in defining the legal status of Puerto Ricans dating to a series of rulings starting more than a century ago called the Insular Cases, some suffused with racist language. Those rulings endorsed the notion that the people of newly acquired U.S. territories could receive different treatment than citizens living in U.S. states.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch in a separate opinion said the court in a future case should overturn the Insular Cases, saying they “rest on racial stereotypes” and “deserve no place in our law.”

Congress decided not to include Puerto Rico when it enacted the SSI program. Puerto Ricans are eligible for a different benefits program, called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, that allows for more local control but not as much federal funding.

The government’s appeal originally was filed by former President Donald Trump’s administration. Biden’s administration continued the appeal while also urging Congress to extend SSI to Puerto Rico.

—REUTERS

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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HUD Secretary Meets With USVI and PR Officials About Recovery Efforts, Housing

WASHINGTON — U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Marcia L. Fudge traveled to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, March 29 and to the U.S. Virgin Islands on Friday, April 1 to tour the islands’ disaster recovery efforts, meet with residents, local leaders, and elected officials about housing challenges and their experiences during reconstruction, and strengthen existing relationships to ensure ongoing collaboration and an equitable recovery.

The Secretary traveled to San Juan, Ponce, and Loiza while in Puerto Rico. In San Juan, Secretary Fudge joined Governor Pedro Pierluisi to meet with recovery agencies and discuss Puerto Rico’s recovery process since Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, and the earthquakes beginning in December 2019. Secretary Fudge also joined Governor Pierluisi as he signed an executive order joining the House America initiative to combat homelessness.

“My visit to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands emphasizes the great urgency there is for an efficient, effective, and equitable recovery across the islands,” said Secretary Fudge. “We want people to know that HUD, under this Administration, is on their side to ensure that reconstruction and other pressing issues are being met through community-based and culturally-appropriate efforts and that all stakeholders have a seat at the table. I heard many different perspectives during my visit – from government to nonprofit to private sector – and with ongoing collaboration and accountability, we can ensure equitable recovery and strengthened resilience for all people.”

In Ponce, Secretary Fudge met with local mayors to discuss disaster recovery progress, and then participated in a listening session with nonprofits and direct service providers on disaster recovery and housing challenges.

During the listening session, participants shared comments on the issues facing municipalities as it relates to housing in Puerto Rico. The meeting brought together participants from non-profit and disaster recovery service providers, and the overarching theme throughout the listening session was inequity.

Participants highlighted the capacity constraints throughout the reconstruction and relocation process after the extreme weather events that have impacted the island over the past decade. Secretary Fudge and participants discussed strategies to measure performance, analyze reconstruction and disaster recovery funds, and partner with local leaders to benefit marginalized communities in Puerto Rico.

At the end of the listening session, Secretary Fudge emphasized HUD’s mission of providing the equitable opportunity to safe, stable, resilient, and affordable housing for all communities in the nation. Following the listening session, the Secretary visited a home rehabilitated with Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding and welcomed a resident to it for the first time.

On March 31, Secretary Fudge traveled to Loiza for a meet and greet with Loiza Mayor Julia Nazario Fuentes followed by a policy expert roundtable, a lunch with direct service providers and anti-gender-based violence advocates, and a meeting with local private sector leaders.

During the policy expert roundtable, Secretary Fudge participated in discussions with participants on reconstruction strategies. Experts discussed the history of public housing and housing security in Puerto Rico, and the need to resolve the supply and demand needs for residents.

Participants also shed light on how the storm damages and reconstruction rates have perpetuated income segregation, poverty concentration, and opportunity and affordability disparities. Secretary Fudge and participants also discussed the billions of dollars in disaster relief that HUD, under this Administration, has made available to the island for reconstruction and resilience. While closing the conversation, Secretary Fudge assured consistent meetings between the Department and stakeholders on the ground to move forward with evidence-based solutions and build capacity.

Following the roundtable, the Secretary met with anti-gender based violence advocates. At the top of the meeting, the Secretary highlighted the programs at HUD that address gender-based violence.

Advocates – with lived experience – from various anti-gender-based violence organizations highlighted housing insecurity as a high-risk factor among victims. Advocates noted that the hurricanes, earthquakes, and pandemic have negatively affected victims via housing insecurity, unemployment, malnourishment, and compromised security. Participants also noted the racial and gender bias within the reconstruction process.

Secretary Fudge thanked the advocates for their time and for their candor, reiterating HUD’s commitment to preventing gender-based violence by ensuring that everyone has equitable access to safe, affordable housing. The Secretary suggested the opportunity to create a pool of resources and ensured that HUD will facilitate meetings between the government and advocates. She also assured continued collaboration with experts, including at HUD, to meet the urgency of the situation so that survivors can safely reach self-sufficiency.

Finalizing the Loiza trip, Secretary Fudge and the HUD team met with local private sector leaders to discuss HUD programs, affordable housing, reconstruction, and economic recovery. The Secretary noted the various concerns from local mayors, nonprofits, direct service providers, policy experts, and advocates to facilitate partnerships and build capacity towards permanent solutions. Secretary Fudge also stressed the importance of ensuring that federal housing investments are spent efficiently and effectively.

On April 1, Secretary Fudge visited St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands to tour Estate Donoe, a Tutu Phase I Redevelopment Project, visit Celestino A. White Senior Homes Development, and participated in a roundtable with USVI nonprofit community organizations.

Throughout the site visits, Secretary Fudge was joined by Robert Graham, Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Housing Authority; Dayna Clendinen, Interim Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority; and site residents. The Secretary analyzed the disaster recovery efforts and discussed the importance of ongoing collaboration toward an equitable recovery.

During the roundtable, the Secretary listened to nonprofit community organizations that have participated in the recovery efforts from previous extreme weather events. The Secretary assured HUD’s commitment to strengthen existing relationships and meet the urgency of strengthening resilience to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The Secretary’s visit to Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands emphasizes HUD and the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to strengthening resilience and housing security for all communities in the nation.

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Puerto Rico To Increase Teachers’ Salaries By $1,000 A Month

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s governor announced Monday that all public school teachers will receive a temporary $1,000 monthly salary increase starting in July as he promised to make it permanent.

The move comes just days after 70 percent of teachers left their classrooms and joined a protest to demand higher wages, better pensions and improved working conditions. Another protest is scheduled for later this month.

“For years, we’ve truly been waiting for this moment,” said Víctor Bonilla, president of the Puerto Rico Teachers’ Association, which represents some 25,000 teachers.

Puerto Rico To Increase Teachers’ Salaries By ,000 A Month

The base salary of public school teachers in Puerto Rico is $1,750 a month, a number that hasn’t budged in 13 years. While some teachers praised Monday’s announcement, union leaders noted that they are still seeking a base salary of $3,500 a month.

Giovanna Ostolaza, who teaches 8th and 9th grade English at a school in the capital of San Juan, said it’s very hard to live on a teacher’s salary, especially for those who have families. She also worried that the governor might not come through on his promise to make the increase permanent.

“They have to prioritize education,” she said. “These are people essential to society.”

Puerto Rico economist José Caraballo-Cueto noted that utilities are nearly 60 percent more expensive in Puerto Rico than the U.S. average, and groceries are 18 percent more expensive. However, healthcare and housing costs, among others, are lower in comparison, according to Puerto Rico’s Institute of Statistics.

The teachers’ association and others had rejected a smaller wage increase recently approved by a federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances and the U.S. territory’s exit from bankruptcy.

Puerto Rico To Increase Teachers’ Salaries By ,000 A Month

Teachers would have seen an average increase of 27 percent compared with what they made in fiscal year 2019. They would receive half that increase on July 1, with the other half tied to them finishing a payroll and attendance system and providing for student attendance keeping.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said he had been looking for alternatives after the board rejected his proposal to increase teachers’ salaries by $1,000 a month. He added that the additional money will come from federal funds, specifically the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. He said the use of those funds is temporary and will give his administration time to identify recurrent state funds to make the salary increase permanent.

Sybaris Morales Paniagua, interim general secretary for the teachers’ association, said they will make sure the increase is made permanent as part of a collective agreement still being negotiated and that they will continue to push for even higher wages. She said in a phone interview that the governor told them he also has identified funds to increase teachers’ defined contribution pension plans.

By DÁNICA COTO/The Associated Press

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Puerto Rico Delays Start of Classes Amid Renewed COVID-19 Surge

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s governor announced Wednesday that he will delay the start of classes at public schools by two weeks and recommended private schools do the same as the U.S. territory grapples with a 36% positivity rate.

The public school year is scheduled to resume Jan. 24, with Gov. Pedro Pierluisi stressing that all those working in the education sector are required to have their booster shot by January 15. In addition, schoolchildren age 5 and older are required to have at least their first dose by January10.

Some 97 percent of teachers are vaccinated, although only 40 percent have boosters. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of children ages five to 11 are vaccinated.

Pierluisi said special education therapies are scheduled to start January 18.

The island of 3.3 million people has reported more than 201,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 3,300 deaths. Nearly 85% of people have received their first dose and some 70% their second one, although officials have urged people to obtain their booster, noting that only less than 40% have done so.

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Tropical Storm Fred Likely To Make An Appearance In The Caribbean Today

MIAMI — A disturbance in the Caribbean is expected to become Tropical Storm Fred today and bring needed rain to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the National Hurricane Center  said.

The storm, currently named Potential Tropical Cyclone Six, moved through the southern Leeward Islands overnight and was located about 270 miles east-southeast of Ponce, Puerto Rico, as of 8 a.m. ET, according to the center A NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft was en route to the disturbance.

“The most important thing today is preparation,” said Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi. “I am not going to minimize the potential impact of this event…we expect a lot of rain.”

Pierluisi said government agencies will close by noon today.

The chance the system becomes a tropical storm is high at 90 percent through 48 hours and through the next five days, the hurricane center said.

Tropical Storm Fred Likely To Make An Appearance In The Caribbean Today

The disturbance is expected to pass near or over the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico later tonight and be near or over Hispaniola tomorrow. A tropical storm warning was in effect for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic. 

Heavy rains are likely over the Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which could lead to flash, urban and small stream flooding and potential mudslides. The greatest threat for flooding impacts will be across the eastern and southeastern portions of Puerto Rico.

Tropical storm conditions are possible elsewhere along the northern coasts of the Dominican Republic, northern Haiti, the Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas beginning late Wednesday.

Tropical Storm Fred Likely To Make An Appearance In The Caribbean Today
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Bryan Gives Reasons For Boondoggles To Florida, Puerto Rico During COVID-19 Crisis

SAN JUAN — Governor Albert Bryan said he attended the first-ever Blue Tide Caribbean Summit in Puerto Rico today because he wants to grow the “blue economy” in the territory..

“In the USVI, we have traditionally governed and operated with our back to the water. However, we have an opportunity now, as we work to diversify our economy, to take full advantage of what our marine ecosystem has to offer.” Bryan allowed.

The governor pointed to the increase in vessels registered in the territory during the pandemic as one indicator of the tremendous economic potential that exists in the marine industry and noted recent investments, including the development of an agribusiness aquaponics center on St. Croix as examples of the administration laying the groundwork for a blue economy.

Bryan also noted a number of capital improvement projects to support the territory’s growing blue economy, including improvements to the fishing dock in Hull Bay on St. Thomas, and improvements to the Ann Abramson, Kings Alley and Gallows Bay piers on St. Croix.

Bryan Gives Reasons For Boondoggles To Florida, Puerto Rico During COVID-19 Crisis

During today’s summit, Bryan met with Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi to discuss partnership opportunities and shared strategies on how Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands can lead eco-responsible business innovations in the region. The governors also talked about export services, technology, products, and knowledge in Blue Economy Solutions that could translate into millions annually for the islands.

Today’s summit comes less than a week after Bryan joined a delegation of Virgin Islands Senators led by Senator Kenneth Gittens for a series of meetings in Florida aimed at expanding the transportation and distribution industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Before returning to the territory tomorrow, Bryan will meet with the Executive Director of the VA Caribbean Healthcare System at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in San Juan.

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Puerto Rico To Open Vaccinations To All Amid COVID-19 Spike

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s governor announced this week that officials will start vaccinating all those 16 and older beginning Monday, prompting celebrations across the U.S. territory facing a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Currently, only people 50 years and older as well as anyone 35 to 49 with chronic health conditions are authorized to receive a vaccine. More than one million vaccines have been administered since inoculations on the island of 3.2 million began in December.

“We continue to face a terrible pandemic, along with the entire world, and its consequences have been enormous,” said Governor Pedro Pierluisi.

During his first state of the territory address, Pierluisi also announced he would implement more stringent measures to fight a recent surge in COVID-19 cases. A curfew that has remained in place for more than a year was expanded again and will run from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting Friday. In addition, businesses will be forced to close by 9 p.m., two hours earlier than currently allowed.

“Unfortunately, as in many other jurisdictions, we are seeing a dangerous spike in COVID cases that has caused a rise in hospitalizations and deaths,” he said.

Pierluisi also announced that his administration would assign $20 million to establish a genomics surveillance program in the island’s Health Department to help officials monitor coronavirus variants and possible mutations. He said he also will set aside $1.5 million to create a digital vaccine passport, adding that people’s personal information would be protected. Details on the proposed passport were not immediately available.

The upcoming changes come as Puerto Rico reports more than 199,000 confirmed and suspected cases and more than 2,000 deaths.

Pierluisi praised the U.S. government for treating Puerto Rico fairly as he announced the island is slated to receive millions of additional dollars in federal funds to help those affected by the pandemic.

At least $50 million would go to the restaurant and bar industry, which has been hit hard by ongoing restrictions to fight the coronavirus. Bars in Puerto Rico have not been allowed to reopen for more than a year. Another $50 million would go to help clinics and private hospitals, and the same amount would be set aside for agricultural workers.

Pierluisi also announced that $250 million would be distributed as part of a special payment to first responders, nurses, medical technicians and others in the health sector who have put their lives at risk.

During the roughly hourlong address, Pierluisi made numerous other pledges, including securing statehood for Puerto Rico, improving potable water service to needy communities and building a new hospital in the nearby island of Vieques after Hurricane Maria in 2017 damaged the former one, which remains shuttered.

Those pledges were dismissed by legislators of the main opposition Popular Democratic Party, who noted that Puerto Rico has been mired in a serious economic crisis for more than a decade and one deepened by hurricanes, a string of recent earthquakes and the pandemic as it tries to restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load.

“He offered a message of dreams while the island lives a nightmare,” said José Luis Dalmau, president of Puerto Rico’s Senate.

Pierluisi also stressed he would not cancel a contract to privatize the transmission and distribution of power currently run by Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority. The contract has come under increased scrutiny amid concerns including what would happen to the thousands of government employees who work there.

Puerto Rico Rep. Rafael Hernández, also of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, said he was disappointed by that pronouncement and said he had hoped the governor would postpone the contract to study it more closely.

By DÁNICA COTO Associated Press

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Bryan Asks CDC To Rescind No Sail Order; Bipartisan Group Of Governors Signs On

CHARLOTTE AMALIE — A bipartisan team of governors from five states and Puerto Rico have signed-on to a letter that Governor Albert Bryan sent to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the chairwoman of President Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, asking the CDC to issue updated regulations to expedite the reopening of cruise ports in the United States.

The Governors who co-signed Governor Bryan’s letter are Governor Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico; Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia; Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland; Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana; Governor David Ige of Hawaii; and Governor Mike Dunleavy of Alaska.

Governor Bryan’s letter asks Director Walensky to have the CDC issue updated guidance that will help cruise lines and ports fully resume operations and open up a dialogue about how the states, territories and federal government can work collaboratively to make it possible for the cruise industry to generate tourism-related dollars in the affected jurisdictions.

“We know the cruise industry is poised to make a comeback. Given the central role of tourism to our local and

regional economies, this would be a welcome development,” Governor Bryan wrote. “This of course depends on when our ports and the cruise lines can and will be able to reopen and under what conditions.”

In his letter, Governor Bryan cites the 2018 Economic Impact Analysis, which highlights the impact that the cruise industry continues to have on the global economy.

In the United States, the cruise industry had an economic impact of over $52.7 billion in total contributions in 2018 and marked a notable increase of over 10 percent since 2016. Approximately 13 million cruise passengers worldwide embarked from ports in the United States in 2018, and they spent a record $23.96 billion in the United States, which marks a 33% percent increase since 2010. Additionally, 2018 saw a new peak in the cruise industry’s U.S. expenditures, generating 421,711 jobs across the United States and contributing more than $23.15 billion in wages and salaries, a nearly 13 percent increase since 2016, according to the Economic Impact Analysis.

In the letter, the governor notes that by July the Virgin Islands expects to reach a level of vaccination that would allow for cruise ship passengers to safely visit and that the cruise industry can be expected to impose its own requirements for passengers, with a view toward keeping them safe and protecting those with whom they may come into contact as they travel.

“An entire year has passed since a cruise ship entered any of our ports. However, to restart the cruise industry safely and confidently, we would all benefit from guidance from the Centers for Disease Control,” Bryan wrote in the letter. “We anticipate that the U.S. Department of Transportation and President Biden’s COVID-19 Task Force will have an interest in restarting a key mode of transportation on which our tourism industry depends.”

Bryan Asks CDC To Rescind No Sail Order; Bipartisan Group Of Governors Signs On
Bryan Asks CDC To Rescind No Sail Order; Bipartisan Group Of Governors Signs On
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Puerto Rico To Get Billions For Hurricane Aid, Reconstruction

SAN JUAN (AP) — Puerto Rico is slated to receive more than $6 billion in federal funds to help it prepare for future hurricanes and other disasters, officials said Tuesday.

The money assigned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would be used for infrastructure projects and economic development, among other things, Governor Pedro Pierluisi said.

In addition, Puerto Rico now has access to $3.2 billion to continue rebuilding from hurricanes Irma and Maria, said Pierluisi, who praised the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden for acting quickly.

Congress had assigned $67 billion to help with reconstruction efforts after the hurricanes devastated the island in September 2017, but of the $43 billion obligated, Puerto Rico has only received $18 billion amid concerns over how the money would be spent.