“I am José” Campaign Launched as Supreme Court Considers U.S. v. José L. Vaello Madero

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear arguments in United States v. José Luis Vaello Madero, a case that will have broad implications for the 3.5 million citizens living in U.S. territories – 98% of whom are racial or ethnic minorities. Two courts have already ruled in the case that the denial of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to citizens in the territories based solely on their place of residence violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. It is estimated that about 450,000 citizens in the territories stand to receive SSI benefits if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Mr. Vaello Madero. Countless others are forced to live in the states, since moving home to the territory they are from would mean losing their benefits. In short, Mr. Vaello Madero’s story is the story of so many thousands of others whose lives have been fundamentally altered by these discriminatory federal policies. Equally American is working to elevate these individual stories through its new “I am José” campaign, which features faces and voices from each of the other territories that have been impacted by the denial of SSI.

“Emblazoned on the Supreme Court are the words ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ The oral arguments in Vaello Madero will put a test to whether these words mean the same thing for citizens in U.S. territories as they do for citizens everywhere else,” said Neil Weare, President and Founder of Equally American, which advocates for equality and civil rights in U.S. territories.

“We are proud to be sharing just some of the stories of folks from the territories whose lives are impacted by the denial of SSI. It is heart-wrenching how the denial of SSI is separating families, burdening loves ones, and making folks’ lives who are already challenging that much more difficult,” Weare added. “We hope through the ‘I am José’ campaign to be able to emphasize these people’s inherent dignity and humanity. Denying citizens in the territories participation in a national program like SSI isn’t just wrong, it’s unconstitutional.”

Equally American will be sharing these messages in front of the Supreme Court tomorrow along with current and former residents of U.S. territories and other supporters.

Live audio of oral argument will be available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/live.aspx. The argument will be at 11am ET (Noon in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and 5am in American Samoa on November 9th, and 2am in Guam on November 10th). 

Learn more about Equally American’s “I am José” Campaign at https://www.equalrightsnow.org/iamjose

Equally American is encouraging people whose lives have been impacted by the denial of SSI and others who want to stand in solidarity with them to share their own stories on social media using the hashtags #IamJosé, #YoSoyJosé, #GuahuSiJosé, #Oa’uJosé, or #WeAreEquallyAmerican.

People can also share their stories with Equally American by taking our SSI Survey at https://www.equalrightsnow.org/ssisurvey.

Below are the stories of just some of the nearly 200 people who have reached out to Equally American over the last few weeks to share how the denial of SSI has impacted them:

José Luis Vaello Madero, Loiza, Puerto Rico

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Mr. José Luis Vaello Madero is not someone who has ever sought out the spotlight. He did not ask to be part of a Supreme Court case, much less a lawsuit at all. He does not seek to become a public figure. The United States government came after him simply because he continued receiving SSI benefits he would be entitled to if he lived anywhere else in the United States except for a U.S. territory. In 2012, Mr. Vaello Madero began receiving SSI disability benefits after he became afflicted with severe health issues while living in New York State. The following year, he moved from New York to Puerto Rico to help care for his wife, who also had significant health concerns. Not realizing his change in address meant he was no longer eligible for SSI, he did not question when his benefits continued. In 2016, the Social Security Administration realized he now lived in Puerto Rico and ceased payments. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit invoking a criminal statute against Mr. Vaello Madero to recover the $28,081 in SSI benefits he had received while he was a resident of Puerto Rico. Two courts have already agreed with his defense that the denial of SSI to citizens in the territories is unconstitutional. Now he faces his biggest challenge yet - convincing the Supreme Court. More about his case, including case filings, is available here. "Yo Soy José"


Elfreda Butler, Ft. Lauderdale, FL (formerly St. Croix, USVI)

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My name is Elfreda Butler. I've spent nearly my entire life living in the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Croix is my home, and that's where I want to be. But as a disabled person, I need SSI to get by. So instead I have to live in Florida. I would like to move back home, and if SSI is extended to the Virgin Islands I will. I miss my family and want to be near them for my remaining years. And I know there are many others living in my situation who also want to come home. "I am José"


Frank "Sonny" Taitano, San Diego, CA (formerly Guam)

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My name is Frank "Sonny" Taitano. Guam is my home. But in the early 2000s my heart started to give out and I was forced to move to San Diego for heart surgery. Unable to work because of my heart condition, SSI became a lifeline, helping me to support myself. After a second heart surgery in 2011 was successful, my health improved enough to move home to Guam where I wanted to spend my remaining years. Family is important to me. I had no idea it would mean losing my SSI benefits, placing hardships not just on myself, but on my family who had to help support me. SSA not only took away my benefits, they told me I actually owed them money after they had continued paying my benefits for several months after I had moved home. The told me if I wanted SSI, I should move to Saipan, an island near Guam whose residents actually are eligible for SSI. But Saipan isn't my home, Guam is. Later I was forced to move back to San Diego, receiving the first ever heart/liver transplant in Southern California. When I again applied for for SSI, I was told that SSA would garnish part of my SSI benefits until I had paid back what they said I owed them. This made it even harder to meet my needs. I feel lucky to be alive, and want nothing more to be home in Guam with my family. But unless SSI is extended to Guam, going home is not an option. And that's something that breaks my heart everyday. "Guahu si José"

More on Sonny's story here at the Guam Pacific Daily News.


Saunoa Leiato Leutele, American Samoa

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Saunoa Leiato Leutele is someone who has always worked hard to care for herself and her family. Despite being over 90 years old, she still helps raise pigs and grow produce to help make ends meet. While she does receive a small amount of social security benefits, it is not enough to make ends meet. She does not want to be a burden on her family. That's why she needs SSI benefits to help pay the bills. If she lived in the states she could receive SSI, but she wants to spend her remaining years in American Samoa - it is her home. "O A'u José."


Haley Nicole Diamadi, Guam

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Haley is a young lady with down syndrome. She was also diagnosed with epilepsy at 9 months old, falls on the Autism spectrum and has ADHD. As someone with severe intellectual disabilities, she requires 24/7 supervision and assistance with all aspects of her life. But even with these challenges, she wakes up every day with a smile. She loves music and dancing, and enjoys giving and receiving big hugs. She is currently 17 years old, and if she lived in the states she would be eligible for SSI once she turned 18. But so long as she lives in Guam, she'll be denied SSI under current law. As Haley gets older, her family may be forced to move to the states so that she can receive the support she needs. But that would mean taking her away from her extended family on Guam and those who have loved and supported her throughout her life. "Guahu si José."


Rachel Ann Acfalle, Merizo, Guam

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Rachel is a young girl who can’t walk due to a rare combination of medical disorders that weaken her body. But it hasn't sapped her spirit. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachel’s family has faced economic hardship, making a challenging situation even harder. If Rachel’s family lived stateside, she would be eligible for SSI benefits that could help her family afford critical medical tests that might better diagnose and treat her disorders. Absent these benefits her family is having to make the tough choice of whether to remain on Guam or uproot Rachel from all she has known. They don't want to have to leave. “Guahu si José.”

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published this page in Equally American Blog 2021-11-08 11:21:15 -0500