ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Leaders of minority farm and ranching groups took aim at the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday, saying the agency hasn't done enough to address decades of discrimination and civil rights violations against Latinos and women.
The groups outlined concerns about dozens of civil rights violations in New Mexico and Colorado and the agency's process for settling discrimination claims among Latinos and women during a news conference as the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association kicked off its annual meeting in Albuquerque.
They said claims filed by Latinos and women as part of a $1.3 billion settlement with the USDA have been denied at much higher rates than those of other minority groups, including black and Native American farmers who settled with the government following separate class-action lawsuits.
"We've got a systemic problem here with the settlement-claims process," said David Sanchez, a northern New Mexico rancher who helped organize the meeting. "It appears it's a numbers game, and it can't go ignored any longer."
The USDA said Wednesday it had no role in adjudicating any of the claims. That duty fell to an independent contractor to ensure the integrity of the process and that process was also reviewed by the USDA's Office of Inspector General, the agency said.
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The USDA has previously acknowledged its "unfortunate and checkered history" with regards to civil rights. But spokesman Matt Herrick said Wednesday the Obama administration has made it a priority to "build a new era" at USDA to ensure customers and employees are treated fairly and with dignity and respect.
Critics said that transformation has yet to happen despite there being more minorities in management positions and more federal dollars funneled to programs that serve minorities.
John Zippert, who works with The Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, said he helped hundreds of black farmers submit claims of racial discrimination as part of a similar case, and most of those claims were approved. That hasn't been the case with Latinos and women, he said.
Of the more than 53,000 claims submitted, Zipper said just over 3,200 were approved. More than half were found not to be timely or complete, and the government took issue with more than 10,000 claims over fraud concerns that included too many claims being filed in the same community.
Zippert said it was only natural that some claims originated from the same communities because grants were awarded to groups to conduct outreach as part of the settlement process.
Herrick said USDA hosted public meetings across the country and paid for advertising to build awareness of the claims process.
Many of the discrimination complaints stemmed from the same time period and involved the same USDA offices regardless of whether the farmers and ranchers were black, Native American, Latino or female. Zippert said that leaves questions about why there was such disparity in the findings among the cases.
"The results are unacceptable, and the secretary must take another look at this thing," he said.
Herrick said the findings of the adjudicator are final and not subject to review or modification by the agency.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack turned down an invitation to be the keynote speaker at the Latino association's meeting this week. He also has not responded to requests from New Mexico ranchers to visit the state to address the civil rights violations identified in a 2013 federal report on grazing disputes that have resulted in a legal challenge.
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