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US fights ruling to extend SSI benefits to Puerto Rico

U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
Benefits denied to those in Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - The federal government filed a brief late Monday to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing Congress has the authority to withhold Supplemental Security Income benefits from U.S. citizens depending on where they live even as President Joe Biden promised to extend those benefits to Puerto Rico.

In its 57-page filing, the U.S. Department of Justice urged the Supreme Court to reverse a ruling last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals that stated anyone from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico can apply for the supplemental benefits, which are meant to help elderly, blind and disabled people who struggle financially.

An estimated 700,000 people on the island would qualify for the benefits, attorney Hermann Ferre said.

The Justice Department argued in its filing that the proper venue for deciding the issue is Congress and not the courts. "It is to Congress that the Constitution has entrusted the power to govern territories and to spend money for the general welfare," it said.

The filing stems from the case of José Luis Vaello Madero, who lived in New York from 1985 until he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013 to care for his wife. He kept receiving the supplemental benefits until told in 2016 that he was ineligible. A year later, the Social Security Administration filed civil action against Vaello, demanding he return more than $28,000 he had received in the benefits while living in Puerto Rico.

The benefits are available to any U.S. citizen living in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Mariana Islands, but are denied to those in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa.

Biden, however, said in a statement that the provision is inconsistent with his administration's policies and values. "I call on Congress to amend the Social Security Act to extend these benefits to the residents of Puerto Rico. ... There can be no second-class citizens in the United States of America," he said.

Instead of supplemental benefits, Puerto Rico has a program called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled. People can't make more than $65 a month to qualify, compared with $750 monthly for the Social Security supplemental benefit. The average benefit received under Puerto Rico's program is $77 a month, compared with $533 with the Social Security program.

More than 40% of the island's 3.3 million people live in poverty, a rate higher than any U.S. state.