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Dr. Bonilla is the director of Centro, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, and a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
When I was a child in the 1980s, my mom, Abigail, suffered from severe asthma attacks that often sent her to the emergency room. Her health eventually deteriorated to a point where she had to give up her teaching job. At the same time, she and my dad separated. She worried about making ends meet as a single parent with a chronic disease. A hospital case worker let my mom know that she could be eligible for a program called Supplemental Security Income, which provides monthly cash payments to older, blind and disabled people with limited income and resources.
The hitch was that she resided in Puerto Rico — where the same benefits are not available to residents who are U.S. citizens. The case worker suggested we move to the states, where there was wider access to federal assistance and also a change in climate that might do her good. A few months later, we packed our bags and moved to Topeka, Kan., where my mom’s childhood friend lived.
Our story is far from unique. Forty years later, Puerto Ricans are still not able to access the same social safety net as other U.S. citizens. This situation has been made more dire by austerity policies that have led to cuts in special education and social services. People who are disabled or care for children with special needs must routinely relocate to the 50 states to get care.
Last month the United States Supreme Court could have ended this disparity. Instead, it held that Congress has the right to deny disability benefits to residents. While disheartening, the ruling was hardly surprising. The court used the same racist logic that for over a century has affirmed second-class citizenship for Puerto Ricans.
The case before the court centered on José Luis Vaello-Madero, a former resident of New York who in 2013 moved to Puerto Rico to care for his ailing spouse. Mr. Vaello-Madero continued to receive S.S.I. benefits, but when the Social Security Administration learned he had relocated, it suspended his benefits and sued him for the $28,000 he had received while residing in Puerto Rico. He countersued for discrimination and won in a district court, but the federal government appealed and the case went before the Supreme Court, where the initial ruling was overturned.
The justices established that the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause doesn’t require equal treatment for U.S. citizens living in the territory. The fact that Puerto Ricans do not pay certain federal taxes was used as justification. “Just as not every federal tax extends to residents of Puerto Rico, so too not every federal benefits program extends to residents of Puerto Rico,” argued Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Yet there is no direct relationship between taxes and federal programs, as many S.S.I. recipients do not earn enough to pay federal income tax. Moreover, the program could be reformed to include Puerto Rico residents, as it already includes residents of the Northern Mariana Islands, which are also excluded from federal income taxes.
The real question is not whether Puerto Ricans should pay taxes or have access to disability benefits, voting rights or any other individual right or entitlement, but whether the United States should continue to treat Puerto Rico as a colony, arbitrarily deciding the future of its residents while denying them both sovereignty and democracy.
Territories acquired by the United States, most notably through western expansion, were extended full protection under the Constitution and eventually incorporated as states with full rights and duties. That changed after the Spanish-American War, when the United States took possession of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and other islands.
In a series of Supreme Court cases settled in the early 20th century known as the Insular Cases, jurists and legal scholars argued that Puerto Rico and other newly acquired territories were “inhabited by alien races” that were too culturally and racially distinct to be governed under “Anglo-Saxon principles.” The court created the category of “unincorporated territories” to justify the unequal application of constitutional rights in these areas. Congress has since leaned on this distinction to justify denying Puerto Ricans equal benefits.
Indeed, the Vaello-Madero decision reaffirms the uneven application of constitutional rights. Justice Neil Gorsuch devoted his concurring opinion to the history of the Insular Cases and called for them to be overruled. He argued that they “have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes.”
It’s certainly past time to repeal these racist and xenophobic precedents. But even if the Insular Cases were repealed, there is no guarantee that other arguments would not be used to keep denying S.S.I. and other entitlements to Puerto Ricans and residents of other unincorporated territories. What we need to address is the very concept of unincorporation, which is little more than a justification for colonialism.
Two competing bills that seek to end Puerto Rico’s colonial status are currently deadlocked in Congress. The Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, introduced by Darren Soto and Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative Jenniffer González-Colón, would lead to an immediate and binding yes or no vote on statehood. The other bill, known as the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, co-sponsored by Representatives Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Robert Menendez, would facilitate a longer process of discussion, deliberation and, most importantly, education on the question of status options. A third consensus bill is now under consideration.
If passed, this would be the first time Puerto Ricans have ever been given the chance to truly participate in a democratic process aimed at decolonization. Until now, we have only ever been presented with check boxes on symbolic ballots that were not tied to actual legislation.
Decolonization is not just a matter of Puerto Ricans coming to terms with their political options but also of ending the silence and obfuscation of the United States’ imperial history. Today most Americans know little about the details of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States. Indeed, many are not aware that the United States remains a federation of states and territories, as well as associated republics and sovereign tribal nations.
Colonialism is deeply embedded into our governmental institutions in ways that impact not just the decisions of Supreme Court justices but also the everyday decisions made by average Puerto Ricans seeking a dignified life. Like my mom, many today are forced to make the same hard choices — between their homeland, their friends and family ties and the care they need and are entitled to.
As Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in her dissenting opinion, access to health care and support for those with disabilities should not be a question of politics but, like self-determination, a matter of fundamental human rights.
Yarimar Bonilla (@yarimarbonilla) is the director of Centro, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a co-editor of “Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm.”
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