SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A federal judge on Monday ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. territory access to three federal welfare programs in a major decision cheered by many.
However, the judge also granted a two-month administrative stay of the injunction at the federal government’s request, which means the decision for now will apply only to the nine plaintiffs in the case.
Legal experts warned that they expect the U.S. government to appeal the ruling, and if unsuccessful, to take it as far as the U.S. Supreme Court given the millions of dollars at stake.
“It’s a precedent, it’s a significant change, without a doubt. Whether it will be historic depends on its prevalence,” Edgardo Román, president of the Bar Association of Puerto Rico, told The Associated Press.
A U.S. Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on the decision.
In a 70-page ruling, Judge William G. Young called it a discriminatory policy to deny Puerto Ricans Supplemental Security Income, which provides extra income for the elderly, blind, or disabled; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps; and Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy, which helps cover the cost of a prescription drug plan.
He noted that the Northern Mariana Islands have access to Social Security benefits for the disabled, and Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands to SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, a program that Puerto Rico used to have until Congress cut it off in 1981.
Meanwhile, he said Congress does fund substitute programs in Puerto Rico, “but they are less generous by far,” offering less coverage and smaller benefits.
He acknowledged that the U.S. government excludes Puerto Rico residents from some programs due to the fact that those living on the island don’t usually have to pay the federal income tax.
However, Young argued that poor people generally do not pay income tax anyway regardless of where they live.