Imagine you are a citizen of my country—America. You are a man of about 70 years old. You are now retired, living frugally off savings and a pension, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, free to basically be as American as you can be: fighting about masks on Twitter, owning guns, paying taxes, and voting regularly for your elected representatives.
Now imagine that one day, in between reading brilliant Atlantic newsletters, you discover that you have a long-lost twin. There was a mix-up at the hospital, and you were separated at birth. This twin is also American and also fighting with strangers about masking on Twitter. Only he can’t vote. And he’s not retired. He’s still working, and his savings are paltry because his cost of living is so high and his pension was cut due to a state fiscal crisis.
Your long-lost twin, it turns out, lives in Puerto Rico. He is technically as American as you, me, apple pie, and fighting on the internet with strangers, but he has no elected representative in Congress, he pays a premium on fruits and vegetables because of a nearly 102-year-old maritime law that prevents a fully free market on goods shipped to the island, and he cannot vote in presidential elections. Oh, and the final point—and why I’m writing this today instead of doing laundry for a trip I’m taking tomorrow—he can’t collect Supplemental Security Income, a form of financial support for older or disabled Americans in need. That is a federal benefit, and because he lives in a “territory,” and not a state, he is not eligible for federal benefits.
If there were any doubt to this, the Supreme Court laid that to rest today. The case before them was United States v. Vaello Madero, which HuffPost summarized as follows: “Jose Luis Vaello-Madero received SSI benefits when he lived on the U.S. mainland and then continued to receive them after moving back to his home island of Puerto Rico. He was not aware that he could not continue to receive those benefits upon moving to Puerto Rico, and the government sued him to recoup [$28,000] he received from the program. He challenged the discrepancy in his ability to receive benefits based on where he lived within the U.S. as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.”
Writing for the majority (the ruling came in an 8–1 decision—can you guess who the dissenter was?), Justice Kavanaugh essentially punted to Congress, saying that because Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state, “The Constitution does not require Congress to extend SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico … because Congress chose to treat residents of Puerto Rico differently from residents of the States for purposes of tax laws, it could do the same for benefits programs.”
You see, while Puerto Ricans pay federal taxes, because they live in a territory and not a state, per Congress, most Puerto Ricans don’t pay the federal income tax. (That’s how we—our government—gets away with the whole “lack of representation” thing. This is not your forefather’s colonialism!) But this also means that Congress can choose to withhold federal benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income.
The specifics of the case are intriguing. That Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk can legally dodge income taxes but our federal government took the time and resources to sue a man for $28,000 is, on its own, shocking and outrageous. But I write to you because this Kafka-esque citizenship has too long been a sole concern of residents of Puerto Rico, and only our Congress—the one you and I elect—can change it. This is not just a concern for Puerto Ricans. Just as the disenfranchisement of felons diminishes us as a true democratic nation, so does colonialism and our relations with Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This is a civil-rights issue, and I beg you to care about it. If our rights as Americans mean something different if you live in one place versus another, how tenable are those rights in the first place?