Minority farmer groups ask Obama for compensation over USDA discrimination

Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate are pressing the Obama administration to resolve discrimination claims for several different minority farmer groups.

Hispanics, Native Americans and women farmers have all found champions on Capitol Hill who are trying to work out compensation with the White House, which includes writing letters to administration officials or introducing legislation.

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Discrimination claims by black farmers have attracted the most attention so far but many groups have felt discriminated against by the Agriculture Department (USDA) in the past after seeing their farm loan applications denied year after year.

This past Wednesday was the deadline for Congress to find funding to resolve their long-standing black farmer discrimination claims under a new settlement. Though the deadline was missed, both the administration and lawmakers say they remain committed to securing appropriations for the $1.25 billion settlement once they return to Washington after the Easter recess.

“We remain committed to resolving all class action civil rights lawsuits involving the department, and continue working to do so,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement in The Hill.

Lawmakers and administration officials have discussed the possibility of providing compensation to the other farmer groups. This could be done through a provision in the supplemental appropriations bill, according to a Senate aide.

“At this point, there is collaboration between the different groups seeking a settlement, because they support each other, it strengthens their effort and they believe in justice for all,” said the aide. “The hope and expectation is that the administration will recognize the need for universal justice and back a compensation package in the supplemental.”

Lawmakers have been speaking up for each group over the past year.

For example, Reps. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, wrote a March 26 letter to Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder urging them to come to a quick settlement on Native Americans’ USDA discrimination claims.

While Kildee and Cole praise the administration for working to find compensation for black farmers, they said there must be “comparable relief” for Native Americans since “they were victims of the same discrimination committed by the same agency over the same time period, and since they too lost substantial revenues and lands that had been in their families for generations.”

Erin Donar, a spokeswoman for Kildee, said the congressman has not heard back from the administration on the Native Americans’ lawsuit, known as Keepseagle, but he “will continue working to ensure that a resolution is reached.”

The Keepseagle suit needs to be settled by April 21 this year or it will likely be set for trial.  Other lawsuits — Garcia for Hispanic farmers and Love for women farmers — are still in the courts as well.

These three suits have not earned the same attention from Congress, which has passed a special statute for the black farmers. Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), including then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, worked to included a provision in the 2008 Farm Bill that set up a fund to resolve the discrimination claims filed by black farmers.

Other legislation specifically tailored for one of the other farmer groups is on the table. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced a bill in December 2009 that would provide compensation for discriminated-against women farmers.

In announcing the bill, DeLauro’s office estimated that 43,000 women farmers have been unfairly denied about $4.6 billion in USDA farm loans and loan servicing. The Connecticut Democrat said it is “an issue of fundamental fairness” and “that all farmers, regardless of their gender or ethnicity, should be judged on the merit of their applications for their loans.”

And much like the CBC has stood up for black farmers, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is making its voice heard for Hispanic farmers.

In May and April of last year, the caucus wrote several letters to Obama, Holder and Vilsack about discrimination claims by Hispanic farmers. In their May 2009 letter to Obama, the caucus says there has been no compensation paid to Hispanic farmers.

“We need to close the book on USDA discrimination once and for all,” the letter says. “We urge you to do so immediately so that Hispanic farmers and ranchers, like their black counterparts, can begin to rebuild their lives and businesses and we can turn our attention to supporting the many historic initiatives that your administration seeks to advance in the coming months and years.”

That has been coupled with support from the Senate as well. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), along with seven other senators, also wrote to Obama in June last year and Menendez spoke about it on the Senate floor later on in November.

“We will never turn the page on the past discriminatory policies within the USDA until all victims — all victims — every last one of them — is made whole for the loss of their land, their dignity, their hope for a decent life for themselves and their families,” he said.