U.S. government discrimination against minority farmers and women will be a thing of the past if the Obama administration has anything to say about it. This week potentially historic settlements are being negotiated between plaintiffs, lawyers and Congress.
A well publicized case involving Black farmers, the "Pigford" suit was settled in the late 1990s but the over $1 billion settlement was never paid out. Now an additional $1 billion award to farmers not in the original settlement because of late filing deadlines is to be included in a Thursday jobs legislation vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.
A claim by Native Americans - the Cobell case - against the Interior Department for mishandling individual trust accounts is to be tagged on to the bill as well. Over $1 billion will be given claimants.
In addition, the Associated Press reported that the administration is nearing agreement on suits brought by Latino and women farmers against the Department of Agriculture. According to AP, "Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has emphasized resolving the cases and closing what he calls a 'sordid' chapter in the agency's history."
Lead counsel for the Latino farmers, Steven Hill, while applauding government efforts says the case is "far from over." "While we applaud the government's beginning settlement discussions there is much more to be considered before this can be presented to those who have suffered this discrimination," Hill said.
There are over 87,000 Latino farmers according to a 2007 census.
Reportedly up to $50,000 will be offered each victim of discrimination. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, chaired by Nydia Velazquez of New York, sees settling the suit as a top political and legislative priority.
In an earlier court decision, the Latino farmers' suit was not granted class action status and efforts are being undertaken to settle it individually. "The Justice Department was able to persuade the judges hearing the case, Guadalupe L. Garcia v. Secretary of Agriculture to reject class action status for the farmers. In 2006, this decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit."
The suit alleging discrimination against women, Love v. Vilsack, was filed in late 2001. It, too, was directed at the USDA. According to the suit, women farmers were routinely denied farms loans by state and local officials responsible for processing loans. In 2009, Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro and Anna Eshoo introduced the Equality for Women Farmers Act, H.R. 4264, in order to provide a legislative remedy to these long standing claims.
Over 150,000 women in the United States own farms.