In Texas and across the Southwest, Hispanic farmers have been fighting the Agriculture Department for close to a decade.
The farmers say the department's Farm Services Agency discriminated against them — denying or delaying loans, and refusing to investigate when they cried foul.
Kemp Davis for NPR
Modesta Salazar stands in front of what's left of the farm in Pearsall, Texas, that her father bought in 1952.
Modesta Salazar stands in front of what's left of the farm in Pearsall, Texas, that her father bought in 1952. Kemp Davis for NPR
The government settled a similar complaint brought by African-American farmers for $1 billion. And while the claims of discrimination and other factors are almost identical, the Hispanic farmers have gotten nothing.
Noe Obregon, 47, looks exactly like the South Texas farmer he's been all his life: cowboy hat, blue denim shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. Obregon says that in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, it didn't matter what you looked like or how good of a farmer you were. If you were Hispanic in Texas, getting a farm loan from the USDA was like the quest for the Holy Grail.
"I would go and apply, and it would take about two to three weeks," says Obregon. "Then they would turn me down, say it was a high risk crop or different reasons. But it was always, 'No.' Then I would appeal, and it would take 90 to 120 days, and by then my planting season was over."
Instead of getting his loan in the spring, Obregon says his money would come in November. He would use the late arriving loan to get his family through the winter, and then he'd apply earlier the next year.
But Obregon learned it didn't matter how early he applied. While his white neighbors got their loans in February and planted and raised crops, Obregon seethed and his debt mounted. By 1990, he owed the government $150,000, and the USDA moved to foreclose on his farm. He says it was the same with nearly every Hispanic farmer in the county.
"They were either foreclosed, or they'd take their lands, put them up for auction, and Anglos bought them because they had the finances and they had the way to buy them," he says.
'No Help For Them'
Down the road from Obregon's farm, 65-year-old Modesta Salazar tells the same story.
"They would give the loans late when the Anglos were already raising their crops," Salazar says.
Kemp Davis for NPR
Salazar and her brother Modesto Rodriguez grew up on the 523-acre farm.
Salazar and her brother Modesto Rodriguez grew up on the 523-acre farm. Kemp Davis for NPR
As some scraggly cows gather around her, Salazar looks out over her 500 acres of mesquite scrub, tumbleweeds, ruined barbed wire fencing — what's left of the family farm. For more than 30 years, this was a vast expanse of cotton, maize and vegetables, with hundreds of horses and cattle. Now it's mostly brush.
Salazar says the farmers who sat on the local USDA loan board were made up of the most prosperous farmers in the county. She says these men gave the government loans to other white farmers — the people they'd gone to school with and known all their lives — while Hispanic farmers slowly went broke.
"All the farmers, from Cotulla, from Bigfoot, Devine, from everywhere — all the farmers were in the same situation; no help for them," she says.
A Long History Of Discrimination
Both Obregon and Salazar's families filed discrimination complaints with the USDA, but say they never heard anything back. The agency refuses to comment about specific cases.
But if you're expecting the Agriculture Department to issue an indignant rebuttal to the overall accusation that it discriminated for decades, you're going to be disappointed.
In 1997, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman testified before Congress and conceded a long history of discrimination in the loan program. He talked about "good people who lost their family land, not because of a bad crop, not because of a flood, but because of the color of their skin."
"[Agriculture] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack often talks about how the department is known in some quarters as 'The Last Plantation.' That's a reputation that's unfortunate and one we intend to fix," says Justin Dejong, Vilsack's spokesman. "By empowering the Office of Civil Rights at the USDA, Secretary Vilsack is laying the foundation for people to be treated better in the future."
No Class Action
Soon after President Reagan took office in the early 1980s, the USDA's civil rights division was quietly dismantled. Nevertheless, the agency continued to tell farmers that if they felt they weren't getting loans because of their color or gender, they should file a complaint.
Kemp Davis for NPR
Like his sister, Jesus Rodriguez laments the loss of their family farm.
Like his sister, Jesus Rodriguez laments the loss of their family farm. Kemp Davis for NPR
But for the next 14 years, those complaints were put into an empty government office and never investigated. By the 1990s, black farmers filed a lawsuit — Pigford v. Glickman. Because the USDA failed to investigate years of discrimination complaints, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman certified the black farmers' case as a class action. And with that ruling, rather than risk a trial, the federal government settled with 15,000 black farmers for $1 billion.
The next year, Hispanic farmers filed their lawsuit. And although their discrimination complaints had been thrown into the same empty USDA office, the judge in their case decided the Hispanic farmers would not be allowed to sue as a class.
The federal government has opposed them in court for the past nine years. Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Justice Department, is forthright about the government's reasoning.
"Unlike in the Pigford case, the court has rejected the plaintiff's request for class certification," he says. "Which means their claims will all be litigated on an individual basis. Because of that, because of the judge's ruling, we will not be able to negotiate a class wide settlement."
It's the same response from the USDA. The government is open to settling individual claims on a case-by-case basis, but unlike the black farmers, there will be no settlement as a group for Hispanics.
A Bitter Disappointment
This response — that it's not the principle of the thing but the legal ruling that matters most — outrages the Hispanic farmers. What's made them even more furious is that within months after taking office, President Obama decided that the $1 billion the government has already given to the black farmers is insufficient, and he's requesting an additional $1.25 billion for them.
It's been a bitter disappointment to the Hispanic farmers who fought the Bush Justice Department for eight years. They thought it was going be different after Obama was elected.
"It makes no sense legally, morally or even politically to treat these farmers the way they have thus far been treated," says Stephen Hill, lead counsel for the Hispanic farmers. "The claims are exactly the same as the claims as the black farmers, and they're entitled to the same recompense for their injuries."
Lawyers for the Hispanic farmers have filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking the court to review the court's ruling that the Hispanic farmers can't sue as a class.
In spite of the settlement with the black farmers and the USDA's public admissions of guilt, no USDA employee has ever been fired, demoted or reprimanded, according to the USDA.
In fact, lawyers for the farmers say some of the worst discriminators in the Agriculture Department have been promoted.