En español | Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has offered at least $1.33 billion to settle all grievances against the U.S. Department of Agriculture by Hispanic and women farmers who say they’re victims of discrimination. Each farmer with a valid claim could receive as much as $50,000.
“The Obama administration has made it a priority to resolve all claims of past discrimination at USDA, and we are committed to closing this sad chapter in USDA’s history,” said Vilsack. “Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers who allege past discrimination can now come forward to participate in a claims process in which they have the opportunity to receive compensation.”
The settlement offer is similar to one floated by the USDA and the Justice Department last year. It establishes a two-tier compensation process that would guarantee a $50,000 payout for claimants with adequate documentation of discrimination. Those who lack adequate documentation or don’t meet other requirements would be eligible for up to $50,000 in compensation, but could receive less if the pool of claimants becomes too large.
Guadalupe Garcia Jr. and other Hispanic farmers who sued the USDA claiming mistreatment say the Obama administration’s offer of compensation for past wrongs falls short.
“We went through a lot of struggle and this just isn’t good enough,” Garcia says. His Washington, D.C.–based lawyer, Steven Hill, says he represents about 1,000 Hispanic farmers who have allegedly suffered discrimination. Hill called Vilsack’s offer “a cynical ploy aimed at rushing my clients into a bad deal.”
His clients tell stories of persistent bad treatment by officials of the local USDA, the last recourse for farmers who need to borrow money. The plaintiffs say they were also shut out of other USDA programs that helped their non-Hispanic farm neighbors. Many were unable to lodge a discrimination complaint against the USDA because it shut down its civil rights enforcement office in the early 1980s. Hill says there are potentially tens of thousands of Hispanic farmers who have claims against the USDA.
In 1999 the federal government settled a similar lawsuit brought by black farmers. In that historic case, the government made tax-free compensation payments of $50,000 each to about 16,000 black farmers and forgave their debts to the USDA. A second group of black farmers who filed late claims have recently been given a second chance at some justice. And in October 2010, the Obama administration announced a settlement proposal that would resolve charges by thousands of Native American farmers and ranchers who say that for decades the USDA has discriminated against them.
The administration’s offer to Hispanic and women farmers is much like the settlement the USDA reached with black and Native American farmers — with a few notable exceptions. Black farmers were given the option to decline the settlement amount and seek more money in damages through an arbitration process, but Hispanic and women farmers won’t have that option. They will, however, maintain the right to reject the settlement offer and continue to pursue their lawsuits against the USDA.