FRESNO, CA - There is growing unrest among Hispanic farmers over a $1.3 billion federal program created to settle discrimination comlaints against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
At issue is the difference between settlement amounts received by black farmers in a similar claim. Hispanic farmers say the funds are about half of what black farmers were alloted.
A local newspaper reports both Hispanic and female farmers will share in the settlement.
By contrast, the government approved $2.2 billion for black farmers -- including $1 billion in 1999 and another $1.25 billion in 2010.
"I know it's a lot of money, but it just doesn't seem fair," said Vera Chavez, whose family farms in Reedley. "They are treating us like second-class citizens."
The pushback by Hispanic farmers has put the federal government in an odd position. Although it's been championing the resolution of the Hispanic complaints, it's also been struggling to defend it at community meetings.
Recently, one of the USDA's top officials was in Fresno encouraging farmers to participate in the claims process, which was announced in February but hasn't begun.
Fred Pfaeffle, the USDA's deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, met with community groups at California State University, Fresno. Several opponents were there too, raising objections about the details of the settlement.
"It was a little contentious," Pfaeffle said. "But I welcome the opportunity to hear criticism of the program firsthand."
Hispanic and female farmers can receive up to $50,000 each if they show evidence that the USDA discouraged them or denied them a loan between 1981 and 2000 for discriminatory reasons.
That evidence can include a sworn statement from someone who witnessed the alleged discrimination.
A second option could earn a farmer a guaranteed $50,000. But the farmers must provide a copy of a loan application and a copy of a written complaint that was made to the USDA.
The USDA also will split $160 million in debt relief among those with successful claims.
All claims will be decided by a third party. Pfaeffle hopes to have that person in place by August. Farmers will have 180 days to file a claim once the program begins. That date has not been announced.
Critics of the program say that $50,000 doesn't come close to repairing the damage done by the alleged mistreatment by USDA staff and officials. Worse, they say, is that the program isn't equal. Black farmers had a chance to appeal their $50,000 settlements; if they won, they were eligible to receive more. Hispanic farmers and women do not have that option.
An appeals process was not considered as part of the Hispanic settlement, Pfaeffle said. There are differences in the cases, he said, because unlike the black-farmers case, this case was not certified as a class action. But the claims process has evolved, and the total amount paid to Hispanic farmers could be more than $1.3 billion. How much more is unclear and will depend on how successful the Hispanic farmers are in proving their discrimination complaints.
"They are trying to wave a carrot in front of us, and some of us aren't having it," said Fresno County farmer Joe Rascon. "The USDA has already admitted to wrongful acts, and now they are not being fair or consistent."
For years, some minority and female farmers have complained that they've been denied government loans and other assistance that was routinely given to whites.
Nationwide, there are 41,024 black farmers, 82,462 Hispanic farmers and 1 million female farmers, according to the USDA's Agriculture Census. It's not known how many might have grounds for a claim.
Two decades ago, Rascon nearly went out of business after he was forced to sell all his farming equipment to repay a USDA-backed loan. Rascon tried to restructure the loan, but the government refused to budge.
But Rascon survived, largely because he worked off the farm and was able to rebuild his holdings. He now farms 1,200 acres of cotton, wheat and almonds.
Gloria Moralez, a former Fresno County grape farmer, was not so fortunate. She lost her 80-acre grape farm 13 years ago to bankruptcy. And she partly blames her inability to get a large enough USDA loan.
"I was turned down three times, and when I finally did get a loan, it wasn't enough," Moralez said. "It just seemed that they made it very difficult."
Rascon and other farmers say they don't plan to apply for a claim, preferring to fight the case in court.
Other Hispanic farmers are also holding back. The farmers and their Washington, D.C., lawyers filed a lawsuit in March, alleging the government's settlement is discriminatory because it does not provide Hispanic farmers the same benefits as black farmers received.
"The government cannot pick and choose favorites among its citizens and bestow benefits and favors on one and penalize the other," said Stephen Hill, an attorney with the Howrey law firm.
Although Hill said he is not advising his clients against filing a claim, he is telling them he will continue to seek a remedy in court.
"We are going to keep fighting for justice as long as we can and in every venue that is available to us," Hill said. "At some point, they will come to their senses and do what is fair and just and settle this thing in terms that are comparable to other similarly situated minority groups."
Although the government does not have exact figures, Pfaeffle estimates thousands have shown interest in filing a claim by contacting the USDA. And he is frustrated to know that some farmers won't apply.
"It is a shame," he said. "People should really take a hard look at what it takes to continue litigation or whether this option is a viable one."