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.
Garcia, 67, the original claimant, says he’s disappointed that Hispanic farmers aren’t being treated the same as the black farmers.
Garcia owned two family farms totaling 628 acres just north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, both of which were lost to foreclosure in 1998. Now he must be satisfied raising a little cotton, pecans and alfalfa on six acres of land that represent what’s left of the family holdings. Garcia blames systemic discrimination by the USDA, which repeatedly rejected Garcia’s loan applications but helped non-Hispanic whites buy his farms in a foreclosure sale. He’s angry that he’s unable to continue the family’s farming legacy by leaving the farms to his 37-year-old son, Joe David Garcia, who decided to earn his living as a trucker instead.
Other Hispanics, too, are unhappy. Modesta Salazar, 66, whose family owns a 523-acre farm near Devine, Texas, told Vilsack during a visit by the secretary in August what he’s offering isn’t enough. “That won’t get me anywhere,” she says.
Foreclosure proceedings against Salazar’s family farm had been stayed pending the result of the Hispanic farmer lawsuit, which was filed 10 years ago. One of 13 children, Salazar says most of her siblings were forced to leave the ranch to survive. Her brother Modesto, 68, stayed on, trying to make a go of raising cotton and cattle. But he suffered strokes in 1997 and 1998, and Modesta Salazar has been caring for him since.
She’s concerned that many Hispanic farmers have died without seeing justice, and more will go to their graves without proper compensation. Unhappy with the settlement, she says she may file a separate suit and ask the court for another stay.
Justice Department officials counter the criticism that the settlement isn’t enough, saying it’s more than generous. Some have even argued against making that offer. Unlike the black farmers’ lawsuit, they argue, the Hispanic farmer lawsuit failed to win class-action certification from a U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., or, on appeal, from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Still, the blanket nature of the settlement bothers Brett Melone, executive director of the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, a nonprofit that helps small farmers. “Some people will be getting more than they deserve, and some people will be getting less,” he says.
The USDA has taken steps to eliminate the bad practices that provoked discrimination suits from minority and women farmers by implementing outreach programs and beefing up its civil rights department.
Melone says that discrimination is real, and complaints against the USDA by Hispanic farmers still exist, but conditions are getting better. “It’s important that the institutional policy now is that it’s not going to be tolerated,” he says. “There’s obviously a lot of energy at the USDA and willingness to put the past behind them.”
That’s good news for Latinos because farming is a profession that’s attracting more of them. According to a USDA census of Hispanic farmers, in 2007 some 82,462 Hispanic farmers operated 66,671 farms and ranches across the United States. That’s an increase in Latino farmers of 14 percent from 2002.
Request a claims package and find more information by visiting farmerclaims.gov or calling a new bilingual call center at 1-888-508-4429.