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Politics USDA will ‘forcefully defend’ debt relief for farmers of color after judge's order

20:50  14 june  2021
20:50  14 june  2021 Source:   politico.com

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The Agriculture Department is defending its historic move to issue some $4 billion debt relief payments to thousands of farmers of color after a federal judge in Wisconsin temporarily halted the payments Thursday.

a group of people riding on the back of a horse: A steel cutout depicting a 19th century Black farmer rises from a field across the highway from the small community of Nicodemus, Kan. © Charlie Riede/AP Photo A steel cutout depicting a 19th century Black farmer rises from a field across the highway from the small community of Nicodemus, Kan.

The payments were mandated as part of a sweeping Covid aid bill that Congress passed in March and are aimed at chipping away at more than a century of unequal and discriminatory treatment under USDA programs.

Some white farmers, however, have sued the department, arguing that issuing federal aid based on race is unconstitutional.

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A temporary restraining order halting those payments was issued by Judge William Griesbach of Wisconsin's Eastern District in response to a lawsuit filed in April on behalf of farmers by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which bills itself as a conservative group focused on individual rights.

USDA said Friday that it disagreed with the judge's order.

"USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers,” a department spokesperson said in an email. “When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress.”

It’s not yet clear if the order is a blip in the rollout, or if it’s the beginning of a drawn out legal fight over the Biden administration’s most visible racial equity initiatives. The debt payments program stems from language Sen. Raphael Warnock secured in the Covid bill a few weeks after taking office, after he helped Democrats win a razor-thin majority in the Senate.

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What the program does: Under USDA’s debt relief program, Black, Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic and Latino farmers qualify for payments of up to 120 percent of their outstanding USDA loans. The department estimates 16,000 farmers of color qualify for the aid, which is designed to also cover any taxes owed on the loan forgiveness.

The initiative has been touted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as a way to “advance equity and address systemic discrimination in USDA programs.”

Black farmers have faced particularly egregious and well-documented racist treatment and barriers accessing credit and other USDA programs, which are often crucial to farming operations. In 1920, Black farmers owned 14 percent of all farms. Today, the number has dwindled to some 1.6 percent, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census.

Political fire: The idea of helping farmers of color pay off outstanding farm debt has outraged some farmers, who are overwhelmingly white. Recent analyses have found that virtually all of the billions in direct payments the Trump administration doled out went to white farmers.

USDA is facing other lawsuits over the program. America First Legal, a group led by Stephen Miller, a top aide to former President Donald Trump, has also sued the department on behalf of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who is suing in his “personal capacity.”

What’s next: USDA on Friday encouraged farmers to continue submitting paperwork so that payments can be processed when the order is lifted.

USDA has until Friday, June 18, to respond to the Wisconsin group’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

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This is interesting!