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Published December 14, 2010, 09:04 AM

Obama approves USDA settlement for black, Native American farmers

WASHINGTON — President Obama Dec. 8 signed into law a multibillion- dollar settlement for black farmers who accused the Agriculture Department of discrimination in the provision of farm and housing loans, but his administration faces criticism from Hispanic and women farmers throughout the country who say the settlements offered to them are not as generous as those made to black and Native American farmers.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — President Obama Dec. 8 signed into law a multibillion- dollar settlement for black farmers who accused the Agriculture Department of discrimination in the provision of farm and housing loans, but his administration faces criticism from Hispanic and women farmers throughout the country who say the settlements offered to them are not as generous as those made to black and Native American farmers.

The Claims Resolution Act of 2010 provides $1.25 billion to pay black farmers and includes additional sums to compensate Native Americans for the Interior Department’s mismanagement of oil and gas leases and to pay Native Americans for water rights claims.

“I’m proud that Democrats and Republicans have come together to lay this case to rest,” Obama said as he signed the bill surrounded by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Attorney General Eric Holder, senators, House members and advocates for the black farmers and Native Americans.

Longstanding case

The black farmers’ case goes back many years. Dan Glickman, the Agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, signed an agreement to settle what is known as the Pigford I case to provide $ 1 billion to African American farmers who had proven discrimination.

Obama noted that thousands of African-American farmers said they did not have an opportunity to file their claims and that as a senator, he had introduced the bill he now was signing to deal with those claims. That bill would provide an additional $1.25 billion for those farmers.

The government recently settled a Native American case against USDA — Keepseagle v. Vilsack — for $680 million plus other considerations.

Obama also said that he is “proud that Secretary Vilsack and everybody at the Department of Agriculture are continuing to address claims of past discrimination by other farmers throughout our country.”

Further claims

But cases brought by Hispanic and women farmers are the latest headache for the administration. The Hispanic and women farmers sued USDA in cases known respectively, as Garcia v. Vilsack and Love v. Vilsack, but the courts have declined to grant those cases the class certification status that easily allows them to be settled as a group.

In May, USDA and the Justice Department announced that they proposed settling the Hispanic and women’s cases for a total of $1.33 billion, with payments of up to $50,000 for plaintiffs who can prove their claims. Plaintiffs would have the right to sue the government for more than $50,000, but the process would be complicated.

The Hispanic and women farmers are not satisfied with that settlement because they think the number of their claimants may be much larger than the number of black or Native American farmers.

“Under the government’s current proposal, Hispanic and female farmers must share an amount arbitrarily capped at 59 percent ($1.33 billion) of the amount now already paid or slated to be paid to African-American farmers ($2.25 billion) despite the fact that Hispanic and female farmers outnumber African-American farmers by at least 12 to 1 and as much as 27 to 1 based on the Department of Agriculture’s most recent census data,” said Stephen Hill, a lawyer for the Hispanic farmers, in a statement released after the Senate approved the black farmer settlement.

Hill also noted that black farmers have a two-track claims resolution process, which allows them to file for a $50,000 settlement and debt relief or to try to make a higher claim if they can prove higher damages.

“The government’s current proposal would limit Hispanic and female farmers to a single track claims resolution process and up to $50,000.” Hill said, adding that there is “simply no justification . . . for the government picking favorites among four equally innocent minority groups” that have experienced the same discrimination.

Lawyers involved in the Hispanic and women’s cases said the cap and the procedures seem to have been put in place by career Justice Department attorneys who handled the cases in the Bush administration and think the plaintiffs’ inability to get class action status means they should agree to a lower settlement.

Sources involved in the Hispanic and women’s cases said Assistant Attorney General Tony West, who is in charge of the cases, did not negotiate the settlement with the lawyers, but told them that USDA and the Justice Department had decided what the offer would be and announced it.

A Senate Democratic aide said

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