Hispanic Farmers Fight To Sue USDA Hispanic and black farmers say for years the Agriculture Department failed to investigate their claims of discrimination. But while black farmers successfully sued the department and walked away with $1 billion, Hispanic farmers say they have been denied their chance at a similar class-action suit.
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Hispanic Farmers Fight To Sue USDA

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Hispanic Farmers Fight To Sue USDA


Hispanic Farmers Fight To Sue USDA

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'M Michele Norris.

And first this hour: Hispanic farmers who say the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them for decades. They claimed the USDA delayed or denied them loans and refused to investigate when they cried foul. For these farmers, the ongoing fight is made more bitter by a government settlement with African-American farmers. They won more than a billion dollars. The Hispanic farmers have gotten nothing. Our story comes from NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

WADE GOODWYN: In his light-colored cowboy hat, jeans, blue denim shirt and cowboy boots, 47-year-old Noe Obregon, looks exactly like the South Texas farmer he's been all his life. Obregon says in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, if you were Hispanic in Texas, getting a farm loan from the USDA was like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Mr. NOE OBREGON (Farmer): I would go and apply, and then it would take about two to three weeks by the time they review the application. And then they will send me a letter that they had turned me down because there was a high-risk crop or various reasons. But it was always, no. So, I had to appeal, and it would take 90 to 120 days. By that time, my planting season was all over with.

GOODWYN: 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, then he'd reapply earlier 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.

Mr. OBREGON: They were either foreclosed, and they take their lands, and it was put up for auction, and Anglos bought them because they had the finances and they had the way to buy them.

GOODWYN: Down the road from Obregon's farm, 65-year-old Modesta Salazar tells the same story.

Ms. MODESTA SALAZAR: You know, they would give us the loan late when the Anglos were already, you know, raising their crops.

(Soundbite of cow mooing)

GOODWYN: As some scraggly cows gather around her, Modesta 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 government loans to the other white farmers — the people they'd gone to school with and known all their lives. Salazar says, Hispanic farmers slowly went broke.

Ms. SALAZAR: All the farmers, from Dilley, from Cotulla, from Bigfoot, Devine, from everywhere — all the farmers were in the same situation. There was no help for them.

GOODWYN: Both Obregon and Salazar's families filed discrimination complaints with the USDA. Both said they never heard anything back. The agency refuses to comment about specific cases. But if you're expecting the Department of Agriculture to issue an indignant rebuttal to the overall accusation that it discriminated for decades, you're going to be disappointed. Back in 1997, then Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman testified before Congress. He conceded a long history of discrimination in the loan program saying, quote, "good people lost their family land, not because of a bad crop, not because of a flood, but because of the color of their skin." Justin Dejong is the spokesperson for the current secretary of the USDA, Tom Vilsack.

Mr. JUSTIN DEJONG (Spokesperson, Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture): Secretary Vilsack often talks about how the department is known in some quarters as the last plantation. This is reputation that's unfortunate and it's a reputation that we intend to fix.

GOODWYN: Dejong says the agency is committed to treating all farmers fairly.

Mr. DEJONG: By empowering the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Secretary Vilsack is hopefully laying a stronger foundation for people to be treated better in the future.

GOODWYN: Here's the background: soon after President Reagan took office in the early '80s, 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 sex, by all means they should file a complaint. But for the next 14 years, those complaints were thrown into an empty government office where nobody ever looked at them again. By the mid 1990s, black farmers had had it with the USDA and filed a discrimination lawsuit called the Pigford case. Based on the USDA's failure to investigate those discrimination complaints, the judge certified a class action suit. And once that happened, rather than risk a trial, the federal government settled with 15,000 black farmers for $1 billion.

So, the next year, the Hispanic farmers filed their suit. 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. And so, the federal government has proceeded to oppose the Hispanic farmers in court every step of the way for the last nine years. Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, is forthright about the government's reasoning.

Mr. MATTHEW MILLER (Spokesperson, Justice Department): Unlike in the Pigford case, the court in this case has rejected the plaintiff's request for class certification, which means that their claims will all be litigated on an individual basis. Because of that, because of the court's actions, we will not be able to negotiate a class-wide settlement.

GOODWYN: It's the same response from the USDA. Justin Dejong says, 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.

Mr. DEJONG: This was a court decision against a class certification in this case.

GOODWYN: 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 the $1 billion the government had already given to the black farmers is insufficient. And he's requesting $1.25 billion on top of it. 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 January. Stephen Hill is lead counsel.

Mr. STEPHEN HILL (Lead Counsel, Hispanic Farmers): It makes no sense legally, morally or even politically to treat these farmers the way they have thus far been treated. Their claims are exactly the same as the claims of black farmers, and they are entitled to the same recompense for their injuries.

GOODWYN: Lawyers for the Hispanic farmers have filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking the court to review the ruling that Hispanic farmers can't sue as a class. Whether there will ever be any compensation for Hispanic farmers is unknown. What is known is that in spite of the settlement with black farmers and the USDA's public admissions of guilt, no USDA employee has ever been fired, demoted or reprimanded. That's according to the USDA itself. In fact, lawyers for the farmers say some of the worst discriminators in the Department of Agriculture have been promoted.

Although federal law forbids USDA employees from discouraging any farmer from applying for a loan, back in South Texas, Noe Obregon says that message apparently hasn't gotten through. When he walked into the USDA office just last summer, he asked the woman behind the desk if he can have a loan application.

Mr. OBREGON: I had to pick up some papers, it was in Uvalde because our office is now in Uvalde. And since I was there, I asked for an application and she told me what makes you think that to qualify?

(Soundbite of car engine)

GOODWYN: Obregon shakes his head, angry and a little humiliated at the memory. Although, the USDA would like to consign this part of its history to the past, there's nothing past about it for this farmer. Obregon walks out to his truck, gets in and drives away.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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