Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Monday, September 24, 2012 that Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers who allege discrimination by the USDA in past decades can file claims between September 24, 2012 and March 25, 2013.

“Hispanic and women farmers who believe they have faced discriminatory practices from the USDA must file a claim by March 25, 2013 in order to have a chance to receive a cash payment or loan forgiveness,” said Secretary Vilsack.

“The opening of this claims process is part of USDA’s ongoing efforts to correct the wrongs of the past and ensure fair treatment to all current and future customers.”

The process offers a voluntary alternative to litigation for each Hispanic or female farmer and rancher who can prove that USDA denied their applications for loan or loan servicing assistance for discriminatory reasons for certain time periods between 1981 and 2000.

As announced in February 2011, the voluntary claims process will make available at least $1.33 billion for cash awards and tax relief payments, plus up to $160 million in farm debt relief, to eligible Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers. There are no filing fees to participate in the program.

The Department will continue reaching out to potential Hispanic and female claimants, around the country to get the word out to individuals who may be eligible for this program so they have the opportunity to participate.                       

Claimants must register for a claims package (by calling 1-888-508-4429. or visiting the website at:www.farmerclaims.gov) and the claims package will be mailed to claimants. All those interested in learning more or receiving information about the claims process and claims packages are encouraged to attend meetings in your communities about the claims process.

 Community Groups Question Process

 The Network of Black Farmer Organizations which has been active in the Pigford I and II, Black farmer discrimination cases, has sent letters to Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, Attorney General Eric Holder and officials in the White House questioning the more restrictive conditions placed on women and Hispanic farmer claimants in making their claims of discrimination.

The Network charges that,”the claims process for the Hispanic and Women discrimination lawsuit is significantly flawed and subject to Constitutional challenges of equal protection because of the different eligibility requirements for Hispanic and Women claimants.  Comparing the prior filed discrimination lawsuits against the USDA, namely those brought forth by Black farmers and Native Americans (Keepseagle), the Hispanic and Women lawsuit’s administrative claims process is dissimilar and must be changed to resemble previously established claim processes.

“Based upon the Network’s knowledge and experience in implementing the claims process for both Pigford I and Pigford II, the now proposed requirements in place for the Hispanic and Women lawsuit will allow for the successful recovery of only a few hundred claims for each respective group.  If very few claimants qualify, which is the suspicion, then the claims process itself could be looked upon as discriminatory subjecting the USDA and DoJ to further scrutiny and feelings of ill will.”

“This is pure discrimination against Women and Hispanic Farmers,” said Senator Hank Sanders, an Alabama State Senator who was involved in the two Black Farmers cases as a lawyer but is not involved in Women and Hispanic Farmers cases.

“I have tried to tell the U.S. Justice Department and the White House that the process is discriminatory. It is my information that USDA wants to do what is fair, but one or two lawyers in the Justice Department insist on this discriminatory approach.

 ”All you have to do is compare the claims forms to see the discrimination. It makes no sense to discriminate when you are trying to correct discrimination. President Barack Obama has been fighting discrimination most of his adult life. I don’t believe he would support this discrimination against Women and Hispanic Farmers if he knew about it. I will be glad to supply more details of how Women and Hispanic Farmers are being discriminated against,” Sanders said.

In its letter, the Network discusses some of the specific difficulties with the process, stating “In the established claims processes of Pigford I and Pigford II, it was never required that a claimant provide one of the following:  (a) a sworn statement of a third party witness to the discriminatory act; or (b) a copy of a discrimination complaint that the claimant filed with the USDA within one year of the discriminatory act; or (c) a communication to or from the claimant with a non-family third party made within one year of the discriminatory act that supports both the claim and the farming particulars.

“These requirements seem outrageous when the sophistication, or the lack thereof, of the typical farmer/borrower in these cases is taken into consideration.  It is unreasonable to expect that a fair number of claimants will be able to locate and produce written documents from over thirty years ago evidencing a filing of a USDA discrimination claim, or a third party notification of the USDA’s alleged discriminatory act.  This was not required of claimants in the discrimination lawsuits of Pigford I, Pigford II, or even Keepseagle. 

In the previous discrimination lawsuits against the USDA, claimants were also not required to have a witness accompany them when attempting to apply for services at the offices of the Farm Service Agency (FSA).  Moreover, it was never mentioned in any of the Defendant’s policies nor was it a practice of the FSA that required prospective borrowers have a witness with them when attempting to apply for services.  It will be extremely difficult to meet this requirement and there appears to be no rational basis for such a request by the USDA and DoJ.

Ralph Paige, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern of Cooperatives, said, “ even though the 180 claims period has started, we are going to continue to fight for justice for Hispanic and Women farmers, including Black women farmers, who were not included in Pigford I and II. We feel the claims process is too restrictive and unfair. We are going to talk with everyone and anyone who will listen to our concerns.”

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