Biden follows Trump in defending Puerto Rico benefits exclusion

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By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden on Monday said his administration will defend at the U.S. Supreme Court a law that excludes Puerto Rico from a federal program that provides benefits to low-income elderly, blind and disabled people, adhering to the same policy as his Republican predecessor Donald Trump.

Biden, a Democrat, said in a statement that he opposes the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) provision in question but that the Justice Department has a duty to defend it. The justices in March took up a U.S. government appeal originally filed by Trump's administration of a lower court ruling that found the exclusion unlawful.

"This provision is inconsistent with my administration's policies and values. However, the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences," Biden said.

Biden called on Congress to amend the law so Puerto Ricans would not longer be excluded.

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year in favor of a Puerto Rican resident named Jose Luis Vaello-Madero who had previously received SSI benefits when he lived in New York but lost eligibility when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013.

The 1st Circuit decided that Puerto Rico's exclusion from the program violated a provision of the U.S. Constitution that requires that laws apply equally to everyone.

The SSI benefits are available to any U.S. citizen living in any of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

The decision not to include Puerto Rico was made by Congress when it enacted the program in 1972. Puerto Ricans are eligible for a different program, called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, that allows for more local control but not as much federal funding, the Justice Department said in court papers.

After Biden took office in January, some advocates urged his administration to drop the appeal as did Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican who is Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress.

Many Puerto Ricans have complained that the Caribbean island's residents are treated worse than other Americans despite being U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico, which is not a state, is the most-populous of the U.S. territories, with about 3 million people.

The Supreme Court will hear and decide the case in its next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2022.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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