A Wisconsin federal judge ordered a temporary halt to a $4 billion race-based federal relief program for farmers on Thursday.
A group of White farmers had filed a lawsuit arguing the policy discriminates against them.
Milwaukee District Judge William Griesbach issued a temporary restraining order, noting the White farmers "are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim" that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) "use of race-based criteria in the administration of the program violates their right to equal protection under the law," according to NBC News.
"The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers because of their race or national origin is to direct it to stop: it is not to direct it to intentionally discriminate against others on the basis of their race and national origin," Griesbach continued.
The USDA said it disagreed with the restraining order.
"We respectfully disagree with this temporary order and USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers," a USDA spokesperson told Fox News. "When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress."
The $4 billion provision was part of President Biden’s American Rescue package, and the funds were to be used to pay up to 120% of "socially disadvantaged," or Black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American farmers' outstanding debt. Twelve White farmers from nine states filed suit arguing that excluding them from the aid on account of race violated their constitutional rights.
"I think you have to take you back 20, 30 years when we know for a fact that socially disadvantaged producers were discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture. We know this. We have reimbursed people in the past for those acts of discrimination, but we've never absolutely dealt with the cumulative effect," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in May, defending the aid.
The USDA settled multi-billion-dollar discrimination lawsuits with minority farmers in 1999 and 2010.
"Secondly, when you look at the COVID relief packages that had been passed and distributed by USDA prior to the American Rescue Plan, and you take a look at who disproportionately received the benefits of those COVID payments, it's pretty clear that White farmers did pretty well under that program because of the way it was structured and structured on size and structured on production. So I think there is a very legitimate reason for doing what we are doing," the secretary continued.
Black farmers accounted for approximately one-sixth of farmers in 1920, but less than 2% of farms were run by Black producers by 2017, according to USDA data.
Minority farmers have maintained for decades that they have been unfairly denied government loans and other forms of assistance. Many of them complained that under Vilsack’s previous tenure - as agriculture secretary during the Obama years - he did little to settle a backlog of 14,000 discrimination complaints from the Bush administration. The Bush administration had found discrimination in only one of those cases.
Farmers spoke out against the relief program in March.
"Just because you’re a certain color you don’t have to pay back money? I don’t care if you’re purple, black, yellow, white, gray, if you borrow money you have to pay it back," Kelly Griggs, who runs her 1,800-acre farm with her husband in Humboldt, Tennessee, told Fox News in an interview.
"My reaction is, Where did common sense go?" Griggs said. "We can’t strike. We can’t stop. That's the part that really sucks. These people in Washington who make decisions for us and our livelihood have probably never stepped foot on a real farm."
Another farmer, Benji Anderson of Georgia, expressed concern about the program.
"I think it should be distributed to everyone," Anderson told Fox News. "Because one thing we all have in common, it doesn’t matter about color or race or whatever, we’re all farmers, all working together to feed the United States."
Fox News' Evie Fordham contributed to this report.