V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett and her fellow representatives from Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands have asked President Joe Biden for a meeting to discuss issues facing U.S. territories – specifically climate change and lack of equal access to federal safety net programs.
“We continue to exclude Americans living in U.S. territories from legal protections equal to their fellow Americans living in the several states and the District of Columbia,” Plaskett said in a statement announcing the move.
While the delegates are not a monolith – two are Republicans, three are Democrats – they meet monthly to set priorities they can agree on to support the people of the territories, Plaskett has said previously. That includes equal access to federal safety net programs.
“Our nation was founded upon the idea that governments ‘deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.’ Yet, even as we celebrate hard-won achievements in diversity and inclusion in our political institutions, we continue to exclude Americans living in U.S. Territories from legal protections equal to their fellow Americans living in the several States and the District of Columbia,” the delegates wrote in a letter to Biden dated July 30.
“We would like to meet with you in order to discuss what can be done to address the millions of Americans residing in U.S. territories who are denied many of the rights and protections that most Americans are able to take for granted,” the delegates wrote.
Top of the list is the Supplemental Security Income program that supports disabled, blind and low-income adults and children in the 50 states, D.C. and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam or American Samoa.
In United States v. Vaello Madero, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in April 2020 struck down the denial of such benefits to otherwise eligible Americans based solely on where they live as unconstitutional. However, the U.S. Justice Department has appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court based on the century-old Insular Cases, a series of U.S. Supreme Court opinions from 1901 on the status of U.S. territories that today are widely viewed as inherently racist and antiquated.
The U.S. Department of Justice argued in its brief that while Congress has the power to extend Social Security Supplemental Security Income benefits to U.S. citizens residing in overseas territories, not doing so does not violate the Constitution, prompting Biden to issue an unusual statement at the time that the department’s actions did not align with his administration’s values.
Tackling that issue legislatively, Plaskett on Aug. 1 introduced amendments to H.R. 4505 – the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act – that, if they become law, would prohibit the Justice Department from using federal funds to defend those Insular Cases.
Addressing the issue in their letter to Biden, the delegates urge his administration “to stop defending the arbitrary denial of federal benefits in U.S. Territories. We also urge your administration to affirmatively support legislation to include Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa in the SSI program, as proposed in the Supplemental Security Income Equality Act (H.R. 537).”
Concerning Medicaid, which in the U.S. territories is arbitrarily capped well below the actual local need, resulting in a lack of access to medical care, the delegates are urging action before Oct. 1. That’s when additional Medicaid block grants to the territories expire and they will face a so-called funding “cliff” with not enough money to sustain their programs, putting the coverage of tens of thousands at risk, the delegates said.
“We therefore urge your administration to support legislation to eliminate the federal Medicaid funding limitations for the territories before October 1, as proposed in the Territories Health Equity Act of 2021 (H.R. 3434) and supported in the President’s Budget for FY 2022,” the delegates wrote to Biden. “We also call on your administration to end the exclusion of U.S. Territories from other federal safety net programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Low-Income Subsidy for the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, and the Disproportionate Share Hospital program,” they said.
The letter also addresses the issue of climate change and its impact on territories that contribute little to the problem but bear an outsize burden when it comes to the effects such as increasingly severe tropical storms and rising sea levels.
“In 2017, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were hit hard by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. These disasters caused thousands of deaths and sweeping destruction to local infrastructure. In 2018, Tropical Cyclone Gita struck American Samoa, and Typhoon Yutu struck the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, causing numerous deaths and destroying thousands of homes on these U.S. Territories,” the delegates said in their letter to Biden.
“The already serious impacts of climate change for those living in the insular areas of the United States are made worse by the deleterious fiscal impacts of unequal access to federal programs, an over-reliance on petroleum, and existing infrastructure that fails to meet new hazard mitigation codes,” the delegates said, noting the Insular Area Climate Change Act (H.R. 2780) would help to address these inequities by providing for climate change planning, mitigation, adaptation and resilience in U.S. territories.