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Department of Justice defends USDA’s debt relief for minority farmers

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The Department of Justice filed court documents on Friday evening responding to the lawsuit filed by a group of White farmers seeking a preliminary injunction against debt relief for minority farmers under the American Rescue Plan Act, according to reporting done by Politico

The Justice Department filed the paper work after hearing the news that a Wisconsin federal judge issued a temporary restraining order that halts the debt relief payments from the Congress-mandated program to farmers of color. 

The direct farm loan payments in question were made available by the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which was a piece of the American Rescue Plan Act — the most recent coronavirus relief package. That included $4 billion in debt relief for minority farmers (along with an additional $1 billion in other aid). The U.S. Department of Agriculture planned for payments to begin in early June and continue on a rolling basis. However, the payments came to a halt after the temporary suspension was announced.  

“The evidence of prior discrimination against minority farmers in USDA loan programs is vast,” the DOJ writes. 

For example, between 1900 and 1974, the number of farmers declined by approximately 60 percent, while the number of Black farmers declined by 94 percent during the same period. In 1920, Black farms operated 45 million acres, compare that to 2017, the number shrunk to just 1.1 million acres. Additionally, a class action discrimination suit between the USDA and Black farmers claimed the agency had discriminated against the farmers on the basis of race and failed to investigate or properly respond to complaints from 1983 to 1997.

In support of USDA and DOJ, House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott said, “I strongly support and thank Secretary Vilsack for standing up and fighting for this critical, urgent and much-needed legislation. This shameful lawsuit is racial discrimination at its worst against our nation’s Black farmers and socially disadvantaged farmers — and I do not say this lightly, because White farmers already own 98 percent of all the farmland in the United States and Black farmers own just one percent.”

“This is of compelling interest to the future of agriculture in our nation because without this vital $5 billion in the American Rescue Plan legislation, this nation could lose the little bit of farmland that’s left of Black-owned farms.” Chairman David Scott continued, “I am in full support of Secretary Vilsack and the United States Department of Agriculture’s effort to fight this lawsuit.”

Politico reports that the judge has until July 23 to make a final decision to grant or deny the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction. However, in the original suspension order, the judge seemed more agreeable to the White farmer’s arguments. 

The arguments come from a group of 12 farmers from nine different states, represented by Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), which filed the lawsuit in federal court. The farmers challenged the unconstitutional race discrimination in the American Rescue Plan Act’s provision to offer loan forgiveness based on racial categories.

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