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AOC Slams Supreme Court for Limiting Puerto Ricans’ Access to Disability Checks

The Court ruled 8 to 1 to deny Puerto Ricans access to the same disability benefits as mainland residents.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez listens to speakers during an event outside Union Station June 16, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) pushed back on a Supreme Court decision that limits Puerto Ricans’ access to government benefits on Thursday, condemning the decision for advancing the U.S.’s colonialist grip over the territory.

In an 8 to 1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Puerto Ricans do not have the constitutional right to access the same government disability benefits as people living in the U.S. mainland. The ruling rejected an appeal from a Puerto Rican resident who was sued for $25,000 by the government for receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments when he moved to Puerto Rico.

Ocasio-Cortez, whose family is from Puerto Rico, decried the decision. “2022 Imperialist Neo-colony Vibes: when my cousins can be drafted into war by a government they don’t even have a right to vote for and denies them benefits, yet that same government can exploit their land into a tax haven for crypto billionaires and tax evaders,” she wrote on Twitter.

She went on to deflect comments from those who say that granting Puerto Rico statehood would solve the issue. “[B]efore people start trying to explain this away as a status/statehood issue, ask yourself why *any* U.S. citizen is denied the right to vote because of where they live,” she said.

“Even U.S. citizens living ABROAD have the right to vote but U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico cannot. It’s colonialism,” she concluded, adding, “And in the case of D.C., racism.”

As Puerto Rican advocates have pointed out, the Supreme Court ruling is the result of a hypocritical decision by President Joe Biden to continue former President Donald Trump’s argument that the territory’s residents shouldn’t receive SSI disability payments. This is despite Biden’s statement on the campaign trail that specifically condemned Trump’s appeal of an earlier decision that Puerto Ricans were eligible for the program.

“[Biden] could have prevented this and chose not to fulfill his campaign commitment. Passing the buck to Congress is not an excuse,” wrote Power 4 Puerto Rico, a group made of diaspora allies that advocates for Puerto Rican self-determination. “What Puerto Rico needs is Admin and Congress to stop imposing, looking away from economic roadblocks like the Jones Act and austerity program.” The Jones Act was a 1920 statute that bars foreign ships from transporting cargo between U.S. ports, making food and other goods far more expensive for Puerto Ricans.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only dissenter in the Court and the only justice of Puerto Rican descent, wrote in her dissent that the majority opinion “is utterly irrational.”

“Congress’ decision to deny to the U. S. citizens of Puerto Rico a social safety net that it provides to almost all other U.S. citizens is especially cruel given those citizens’ dire need for aid,” she wrote. “Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process.”

As Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, Puerto Rico has been increasingly exploited by wealthy people as a tax haven; government officials have placed incentives for wealthy people who normally reside stateside to hide their money in Puerto Rico in order to dodge taxes. A recent move to restructure the island’s debt — known as the Plan of Adjustment under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) — will come at the cost of citizens and economic stability, and will serve mainly to benefit foreign capitalists, Truthout reported earlier this year.

While some Democrats have pushed for statehood for Puerto Rico, the New York lawmaker has pushed instead for Puerto Ricans to be able to determine their own path for the island. Last March, Ocasio-Cortez introduced a bill that would create a pathway for self-determination, calling for the creation of a “status convention” that would allow Puerto Ricans to decide on whether or not they want to become a state, become independent from the U.S., or otherwise.

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