On Tuesday, October 19, the Obama Administration agreed to pay up to $760 million to compensate American Indian farmers and ranchers who were denied loans from USDA, ending months of negotiation on the 11-year-old class-action lawsuit now known as Keepseagle vs. Vilsack.
The Keepseagle plaintiffs charged the USDA with denying low-interest loans to thousands of Native American farmers and ranchers while approving similar loans for white farmers and ranchers.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who took office promising to address longstanding complaints by minority farmers against the Department, announced that $680 million would be available to settle discrimination claims, with an additional $80 million available for forgiveness of farm-loan debts. Eligible farmers and ranchers who can show evidence of substantial discrimination will be paid up to $50,000 dollars apiece; those with stronger evidence of economic losses can receive up to $250,000.
“With today’s agreement, we take an important step forward in remedying USDA’s unfortunate civil rights history,” President Barack Obama said in a statement yesterday.
The Keepseagle settlement has long been overshadowed by similar discrimination litigation brought by black farmers against the USDA; Congress has yet to appropriate the $1.25 billion settlement for the Pigford vs. Glickman case agreed upon in February. Unlike the Pigford case, however, the Keepseagle settlement funds will come from the Treasury Judgment Fund, which will not require Congressional action.
In his statement, President Obama urged Congress to pass appropriations for Pigford as well as another pending discrimination suit not covered under the Judgment Fund. “Congress must also act to implement the historic settlements of the Pigford II lawsuit, brought by African American farmers, and the Cobell lawsuit, brought by Native Americans over the management of Indian trust accounts and resources,” said Obama.
This Congress will have one last chance to get Pigford II and Cobell funded during the upcoming lame duck session in late November and early December. The key issue in that debate will be finding appropriate budgetary offsets for the settlement funding. NSAC strongly supports getting this long overdue job done, but does not support using the nutrition or conservation budgets for offsets.
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