News Column

David Cantu is one of thousands of Hispanic farmers seeking justice.

Finding Justice for Hispanic Farmers Proves Elusive

May 2, 2013

Rebecca Villaneda --

As the deadline passed this week for Hispanic farmers to file claims alleging discrimination by the USDA, many farmers aren't sure they'll ever receive justice.

New Mexico farmer David Flores wanted to buy a piece of land owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was the only farmer to put in a bid.

Because his bid was late in the year, the USDA agreed to lease it to him with the caveat he could eventually buy it. Flores, now 71 years old, moved his family to the property and cleaned up the abandoned farm. As he was getting ready to purchase it, Flores alleges, the USDA reclassified it so that anyone could buy it. It was strange, considering that Flores was the only one to put in a bid for the property.

But, as Flores would later learn, a local USDA county committee member got the man across the street to apply as well and the Anglo farmer got the land instead. That farmer didn't want it for crops. He just wanted it for the water rights, which he then sold to the State of New Mexico.

"The white farmer who they gave it to had no intention of farming the land," Flores said. "He demonstrated a need for a hay barn, more than I demonstrated a need for a livelihood for me and my family."

There are hundreds of similar tales across the country as the deadline for filing claims with the USDA over alleged discrimination passed on Wednesday. Many Hispanic and women farmers have died waiting for justice, while others wonder if the federal government will ever right the wrongs.

Attorneys representing Hispanic and women farmers say the claims process set up by the USDA in early 2012 has been flawed. The USDA has agreed to pay up to $1.3 billion in cash awards, tax relief payments and farm debt relief for periods between 1981 and 2000 to the victims of discrimination.

This picture, taken in 2001, is a group of Hispanic farmers who came to Washington, D.C. to share their stories with Congress about how they felt the USDA discriminated against Hispanic farmers. Four people in the photo are now deceased, according to attorney Jennifer E. Samolyk

Jennifer Samolyk, an attorney with Stinson Morrison Hecker LLP, started working with Hispanic farmers in 2002. She has received calls from farmers from California to Florida.

"We all agree that the government didn?t have to offer a claims process for the women and Hispanic farmers," said Samolyk. "But once they did, they had to make it fair. You can't pick favorites amongst the minority groups. So once they decided to have this claims process, all of a sudden they made it really hard to qualify for."

The claims process for Hispanic farmers and women follows the $1.25 billion Pigford II settlement with African-American farmers and the $760 million Keepseagle settlement with Native American farmers. As a result of the Pigford settlement, the USDA no longer allows county committee members to decide on loan eligibility.

Samolyk says allegations of fraud in those settlements, both of which were finalized in 2010, have made it harder for Hispanics to file claims with the USDA.

"There is a lot of documentation that is required for these farmers that wasn't required in the Black and Native American farmers' claims process," Samolyk said, adding that the claims forms have doubled in pages.

"The documentation is burdensome," Samolyk said. "(Plaintiffs) have to go back and find lease agreements that they had during the 1980s, required to show documents that they indeed owned land, whereas in the other cases, a farmer's own affidavit would suffice."

As in the Pigford and Keepseagle settlements, there are two tracks for claims: Successful tier 1A claimants may receive up to $50,000, and successful tier 1B claimants may receive up to $250,000.

For the 1B process, farmers must provide written discrimination complaints and identify an Anglo farmer who received a loan or a benefit the Hispanic farmer was denied during the same time period.

Also, during the Keepseagle filings, farmers filing for the lesser amount of a settlement were given free legal representation. Hispanic farmers have been given no such representation.

The USDA extended the deadline to May 1, because USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack wanted to make sure the farmers had their issues addressed, said Lillian Salerno, acting administrator for Rural Business Service.

Endless Stories of Discrimination

Colorado farmer Alfonzo Abeyta, 75, has filed for the 1B tier. He went to his local USDA office and requested state records that listed loans from 1980 to 2000.

"There were only four Hispanics that got (loans) in that period," Abeyta said, adding that 23 were white farmers, which is how he was able to find a neighbor who was awarded a government loan.

Abeyta had filed discrimination complaints three different times, and kept all his records.

"I had records of all that, while a lot of the other farmers never appealed," he said. "They just sat back, even though they were discriminated against the same way we were. They never bothered to appeal."

Because of a lengthy process, many farmers have lost paperwork or their witnesses have simply died of old age, Samolyk said.

"I have to do a claim form for a man in his late 80s. His wife was his witness and she has passed on," Samolyk said. "This is a person we've been working with since 2002. The fact that he doesn?t have a witness will probably preclude him from collecting under the claims process."

David Cantu, 53, is now the trustee of his father's estate. His father would have been 91 this year and he will never get to see the result of his case.

Cantu was denied a request for his father's farm loan records, and he doesn?t know why. The loan officer waited two weeks to notify Cantu that his request for the records was denied, costing Cantu the opportunity to file for the 1B tier status on behalf of his father's estate, he said.

"The local offices are denying farmers their files," Cantu said. "I think Washington is detached to what is happening at the local offices."

There are also reports that the Claims Administrator is returning submitted claim forms, stating that they are incomplete.

According to an attorney who has worked closely with the farmers, claims administrators who are reviewing the claim forms are misplacing pages from the claims package, forcing the lawyers to resend the completed claims package.

"It's a tough process," Cantu said. "They're making it impossible. It's unfortunate because those farmers who had substantial losses because of USDA discrimination will never be made whole again -- never."

Source: (c) 2013. All rights reserved.

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