Hispanic Farmers Still Wait For Relief From USDA

Congress recently voted to fund the multi-billion dollar settlement involving the Department of Agriculture and black and Native American farmers. The farmers claimed rampant and systematic discrimination in the awarding of USDA loans. Hispanic farmers have made similar claims, but won't see nearly as much money.

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President Obama signed a landmark settlement last week between the government and black farmers. The Department of Agriculture acknowledged that the agency discriminated against blacks who applied for loans. A similar lawsuit was settled with Native American farmers. But that is not the case for Hispanic Americans who encountered the same discrimination.

As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, the government and the courts are handling their cases very differently.

WADE GOODWYN: Noe Obregon is a third generation Texas farmer. His grandfather, a sharecropper, eventually earned enough to buy his own property. By the time Obregon graduated from high school, he'd already been farming with his father for years, plowing the land. Obregon went to the USDA's Farm Service Agency in 1980 because one of the agency's missions was to help young farmers get started.

Mr. NOE OBREGON (Farmer): I had asked for an application, and they said that I was too young to farm. Even though my background had always been in the farm industry, they denied me, saying that I was too young.

GOODWYN: Obregon says if the Farm Service Agency didn't turn him down outright, they would delay his loan for months. White farmers in Frio County got their USDA loans in January, Hispanic farmers in July.

Mr. OBREGON: By the time we would get our loans, it was super late. We couldn't put in our crops. Our rain cycles was gone. It was controlled by Anglo farmers, and they wanted Hispanic workers to work for them.

GOODWYN: When minority farmers filed complaints to the USDA Civil Rights Office, the agency tossed those complaints into an empty room and refused to act. That failure to investigate the discrimination complaints moved federal judges in the black and American Indian farmers' cases lawsuits to confer class status on their lawsuits.

But Hispanic and women farmers weren't so lucky. Even though their discrimination claims were tossed into that same back room at the USDA, the federal judges in their cases denied them class status. Stephen Hill represents the Hispanic farmers.

Mr. STEPHEN HILL (Attorney): You are talking about four equally innocent minority groups, all of whom are equally victimized by the same discrimination at USDA, and for some reason, the government is picking favorites. That is something that the government is constitutionally prohibited from doing.

GOODWYN: Hill says that the federal government is offering women and Hispanic farmers about a billion dollars less than black and Indian farmers, even though the pool of potential Hispanic and women claimants is as much as 12 times larger.

Mr. HILL: African-Americans seem to be first in line, Native Americans second and female and Hispanic farmers somehow tied for 3rd place.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): Their cases are different, because they were not certified as class actions. So they are, in essence, a series of individual cases.

GOODWYN: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says the total amount of money going to settle the Hispanic and women farmers' lawsuits is smaller. If they agree to participate in the settlement, their damages are capped at $50,000.

Sec. VILSACK: And they certainly don't have to take that option. They can choose to proceed with their case. But at least they now have - or will have something concrete and specific and a substantial amount of money, $1.3 billion.

GOODWYN: There are some differences, however. Black farmers had two settlement options, and some farmers were able to prove they were owed millions of dollars in damages. Hispanic famers will be capped at 50,000. Still, Vilsack says that until the Obama administration got into office, the Hispanic farmers were being offered nothing by the Bush administration and that Hispanic farmers should be happy, if not their counsel.

Sec. VILSACK: You know, I can understand why lawyers are making this pitch, because obviously, it's going to be a lot more difficult for them to secure enough claimants to justify the expense and the time that they've put into this case. A class action obviously would result in a significantly higher fee. So I understand why they're concerned about this.

GOODWYN: A bigger bone of contention is the issue of notification. With black and Indian farmers, the court oversees the outreach to potential claimants. But with the Hispanic and women farmers, it will be the defendant, the federal government, who organizes the outreach, not the court.

The USDA has indicated it would put up signs in their offices and notices on their website. Lawyers for Hispanic farmers throw up their hands and say that's the last place potential claimants would be found. For Noe Obregon in South Texas, it's all been a terrible frustration. To have different settlements for different groups of aggrieved farmers broken down by race and sex doesn't make sense to him.

Mr. OBREGON: It doesn't. That itself is discrimination right there, if you ask me.

GOODWYN: Hispanic famer's counsel Stephen Hill says the government's proposal violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, and that his clients are considering a lawsuit on those grounds.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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