Civil Rights Groups Ask Supreme Court to Overturn Racist Rulings Against Puerto Rico

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Over the past few weeks, the debate over Puerto Rico’s political status has been back on the table after a group of legislators reached a historic agreement to introduce non-partisan legislation that does not favor a vote on any status.

What many do not know about this geopolitical situation is that it is framed in legislative precedents considered by specialists as racist and detrimental to the rights of Puerto Ricans.

The Insular Cases, rulings from the early 1900s handed down by the majority of judges who legalized racial segregation in the Plessy v. Ferguson case after Puerto Rico came under U.S. control following the Spanish-American War of 1898. The rulings considered residents of the U.S. territories as “alien races” and “savage tribes.”

As Federal District Judge Gustavo A. Gelpí explains, in 1898, the United States became an empire with overseas possessions, just as the European colonizing powers were. 

The signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War, determined that the former Spanish territories of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico “came to fly the American flag.”

“The advent of the 20th century saw the birth of rampant racism and imperialistic sentiments toward the inhabitants of the newly acquired island possessions,” Gelpí explains in his paper presented in 2010 in Hawaii during the Second Annual Conference of the Honolulu Chapter of the Federal Bar Association. “On the other hand, it would no longer be the paradigm of American expansionism but the paradigm to follow. Members of the U.S. Congress and even the President himself openly expressed their sense of American superiority toward the inhabitants of the territories.”

That sentiment was reflected in the Supreme Court’s constitutional justification of the Insular Cases between 1901 and 1905. Since then, Congress and the federal government have been authorized to arbitrarily treat Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories as aliens for domestic purposes and as a state for international purposes.

For example, Puerto Ricans can be drafted and serve in the U.S. military, but those living on the island cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections or have voting members of Congress, NBC News explained. The same reasoning has been used to justify disparities in funding for public programs in Puerto Rico, such as Medicaid and food stamps.

Puerto Ricans are “generally exempt from most federal taxes, including the income tax, excise taxes, and estate and gift taxes,” according to the Justice Department. However, Puerto Ricans do pay federal payroll taxes and help fund public programs such as Medicare and Social Security, contributing more than $4 billion annually in federal taxes to the United States.

In light of the injustice, the American Civil Liberties Union, Hispanic Federation, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and Equally American joined forces Tuesday to launch a campaign to overturn the Insular Cases.

The campaign to overturn the Insular Cases comes a month after the Supreme Court used them as legal precedent by ruling in an 8-1 vote that it is constitutional to deny federal benefits to elderly and disabled U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico, even though they can access the same benefits if they move to any of the 50 mainland states.

“The time is now for the court to overrule the Insular Cases,” Alejandro Ortiz, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s racial justice program, said Tuesday. “They justify continuous maintenance of U.S colonies.”