WASHINGTON — After decades of longstanding racism in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) loan programs, Black farmers stand to lose their farms, land and livelihoods after a temporary injunction halted an estimated $4 billion in debt relief passed by Congress as part of the American Rescue Act. Today the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Public Counsel, and pro bono counsel Winston & Strawn LLP, filed an intervention motion on behalf of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (the Federation). The motion was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Miller v. Vilsack.
Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan, signed into law on March 11, 2021, was designed to provide debt relief to Black farmers and other farmers of color who have long suffered at the hands of the USDA’s harmful discrimination. The USDA’s long-documented and acknowledged racist policies of denying and delaying loans prevented Black farmers from operating successful farm businesses, forcing foreclosures and continuing the shameful legacy of Black land loss in the United States.
In Miller v. Vilsack, five white Texas farmers filed a lawsuit against the USDA alleging that loan forgiveness payments violate the U.S. Constitution. This case is one of many ongoing lawsuits involving Section 1005 in other jurisdictions, including Florida, where a federal court issued a preliminary injunction against the program. Plaintiffs specifically argued that Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan of 2021 (“ARPA”) violates the equal protection rights promised under the Constitution for farmers and ranchers who stand eligible for USDA loans but do not qualify for debt relief under the program.
“The USDA has a documented history of discriminating against Black people and communities of color. The federal government’s attempt to rectify this injustice should be applauded, not stopped,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “If this critical assistance is not provided soon, Black farmers and other farmers of color who have struggled to overcome decades of discrimination and the economic impacts of the global pandemic will face the threat of losing their land and their livelihoods.”
Farmer declarations included in the intervention cite multiple instances of discrimination, including:
- Misplaced loan paperwork and approval delays of more than two years;
- Inability to sell equipment to repay loans due to vandalism at the auction house in the form of racist graffiti on the tractors up for bid;
- Loan paperwork being filed on time but funds chronically arriving too late for planting season;
- Inaccurate advice about whether FSA loans could be restructured; and
- Receiving loan funds weeks later in the season than white farmers in the same area, providing them with an unfair advantage in planting and harvesting a profitable crop.
Encountering years of unfair loan terms, mistreatment by the USDA and discrimination at every turn, Black farmers are now currently less than 1% of all farmers in the country. This has not always been the case. In 1920, one out of every seven farms were owned by a Black farmer, but the number of Black farmers in America has dropped significantly — plummeting by 98% over the past century.
“The Federation was encouraged by USDA’s and Congress’s attempt to address the disproportionate impact of the debt burden that farmers of color face because of historic and ongoing race-based discrimination in agricultural credit,” said Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. “Black farmers have always honored their commitments to their communities and our nation; our hope is that the Department will be allowed to honor its commitment to our farmers and other farmers of color.”
A temporary injunction against the program stands in the way of critical debt relief for those who need it the most. Without debt relief, these farmers face losing their land, livelihoods and equipment, while also bearing the additional financial burden of the farming costs they’ve taken on in anticipation of debt forgiveness. Today’s intervention positions the Federation to vigorously defend Section 1005 and ensure that the narratives of Black farmers are heard as this debt relief is critical to their survival.
“Federal farm policy has been cruelly discriminatory to Black farmers, operating in conjunction with private discrimination in bank loan policies to threaten their very existence,” said Mark Rosenbaum, opportunity under law director at Public Counsel. “The loan forgiveness legislation at risk in this litigation is a lifeline that is the difference between existence and extinction of the Black farmer. We bring this action so that the narratives of the discrimination still confronted by those few remaining Black farmers will not be silenced and that some measure of recompense for the racism experienced will not be denied to individuals who seek only equal opportunity to work their land, to provide for their families and serve all of us.”
Read the intervention here: https://www.lawyerscommittee.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/2021-10-12-D93-1-Memo-ISO-Motion-to-Intervene.pdf.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund assists limited resource farmers, landowners and cooperatives across the South with business planning, debt restructuring, marketing expertise and a whole range of other services to ensure the retention of land ownership and cooperatives as a tool for social and economic justice. The overall mission is to reverse the trend of Black land loss and be a catalyst for the development of self-supporting communities via cooperative economic development, land retention and advocacy.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and hate crimes.
Public Counsel is the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. Founded in 1970, Public Counsel strives to achieve three main goals: protect the legal rights of disadvantaged children; represent immigrants who have been the victims of torture, persecution, domestic violence, trafficking and other crimes; and foster economic justice by providing individuals and institutions in underserved communities with access to quality legal representation. Through a pro bono model that leverages the talents and dedication of thousands of attorney and law student volunteers, along with an in-house staff of more than 75 attorneys and social workers, Public Counsel annually assists more than 30,000 families, children, immigrants, veterans and nonprofit organizations and addresses systemic poverty and civil rights issues through impact litigation and policy advocacy. For more information, visit www.publiccounsel.org.
–Federation of Southern Cooperatives
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