Last Updated on October 5, 2002 by Paulette Brown-Hinds
Representative Joe Baca (D-Rialto) recently questioned U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials about whether the Departments Farm Service Agency and Office of Civil Rights acted improperly while investigating complaints of discrimination against Latino farmers.
The questions were at a House Agriculture Committee hearing, and focused on claims by minority farmers that the FSA has improperly denied or delayed federal farm loans, and that OCR has not conducted proper and timely investigations into the claims. Baca is the only Hispanic member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Since 1997, groups of African-American, women, Native American, and Latino farmers have filed class action lawsuits against the Department alleging discrimination in the Departments loan process. The Department has generally issued stays of foreclosure for farmers involved in African American or Native American class action claims involving FSA loan programs, but failed to issue stays of foreclosure for Latino class members in the Garcia v. Veneman suit.
Baca and other members of the panel say that the Department has become secretive, and tends to view litigation matters and civil rights problems within its agencies exclusively from a standpoint of self-defense.
The Department seems obsessed with disavowing any guilt from past discrimination lawsuits, Baca said. If the Department continues to view every request for information with scrutiny, fearing how the information could be used against it in court, we can honestly say that things are worse, not better.
The Department must open itself to public scrutiny and put all past misdeeds behind it. We must end this fear of litigation that has created secrecy.
Latino, African American, and Native American farmers also allege that the Departments civil rights office has not processed complaints of discrimination in a timely manner. Agriculture Department regulations require that certain pieces of the complaint process be completed within 180 days, but set no specific time requirement for other pieces. The Department on average takes more than 2 years to fully adjudicate claims, in which time lenders have instead foreclosed on many minority farms that may have sought restitution under their claims.
The Office of Civil Rights needs to establish clear timelines for the processing of discrimination complaints from beginning to end, Baca said. The current average processing time of a complaint is a little over two years. This is unacceptable, and either USDA change the rules, or Congress will.
Latino farmers allege that FSA offices have been using minor credit discrepancies and ambiguous regulatory language to deny or delay loan payments. The regulations allow the FSA to delay payments because of farmers unacceptable credit histories. The regulations further state that isolated missed payments could, but do not automatically, represent unacceptable credit history.
The subjectivity in the decision-making is at the root of these discrimination complaints, Baca said. It is all too easy for a loan officer to selectively apply laws on credit worthiness on one farmer, but not the next.
The hearing took place in the House Agriculture Committee hearing room, 1301 Longworth House Office Building in Washington, D.C.