More than 20,000 Hispanic farmers have filed claims with the United States Department of Agriculture over alleged loan discrimination, a top USDA administrator said.
The USDA is making a final push to get Hispanic farmers who believe they have been discriminated against to file a claim before the May 1 deadline. Already 65,000 claim forms have been sent out, but officials are unsure how many of those forms will actually be returned.
"The Secretary (Tom Vilsack) extended the deadline to May 1 because he wanted to make sure (that farmers) have their issues addressed," Lillian Salerno, acting administrator for Rural Business Service, told HispanicBusiness.com.
The government announced in early 2012 it was setting up a settlement fund of $1.3 billion for cash awards, tax relief payments and farm debt relief. The fund is to cover certain periods between 1981 and 2000.
Salerno said the general claims the USDA is seeing are from from farmers who were denied applications when they visited a local USDA office or were discouraged from taking part in the loan process. In some news reports, female farmers contend they were denied loan forgiveness while their white male counterparts were granted it.
Settling potential claims and correcting the USDA's troubled civil right issue has been a pressing concern for President Obama and Secretary Vilsack. This program for Hispanic farmers and women is separate from the $1.25 billion Pigford II settlement with African-American farmers and the $760 million Keepseagle settlement with Native American farmers.
Farmers need to file a claim -- whether it's complete or not -- by May 1 or lose rights in the claim process, Salerno said. "The most important thing to know is that the deadline is rapidly approaching," she said. "They must file a claim, or they can't be pulled from the fire."
To file a claim, individuals have to provide documentation showing that their application for a loan or loan servicing assistance was denied, and supply any information to support the alleged discrimination. Critics contend proving that discrimination will be difficult or next to impossible for many farmers.
But Salerno said that shouldn't stop farmers from filing a claim if they believe they were discriminated against. Officials at regional USDA offices have been trained on privacy issues and to provide record requests to farmers seeking information for their cases.
Those who have deceased family members who were potentially discriminated against can file claims with the USDA. The family must provide a death certificate in addition to the supporting documentation.
Once the claim process closes on May 1, a third-party administrator hired by the USDA will begin to evaluate the claims to determine who should receive a cash settlement, tax relief or debt forgiveness under the program. Claimants can receive $50,000 or more under the program, officials said.
Salerno is hopeful that qualified claims will be paid starting later this year. "It just depends on how many claims we get and how quickly (the third party administrator) can get through it," she said.
More information on the claims process is available at www.farmerclaims.gov.
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