Congressional Hispanic Caucus raises civil rights issues

Michelle Lujan Grisham

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are raising questions about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s treatment of Latino farmers and ranchers.

Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Linda Sanchez of California and fellow Democrats Michelle Lujan-Grisham and Ben Ray Lujan, both of New Mexico, sent a letter to the agency last week and requested a meeting with Secretary Tom Vilsack.

They say many caucus members have received reports from constituents indicating significant civil rights violations and discrimination by the agency. They also pointed to a 2013 review that found noncompliance with civil rights requirements and regulations by U.S. Forest Service offices in New Mexico and Colorado.

“Although the report examined two states, we believe these issues with USDA are widespread and affect Hispanic communities across the country,” they stated in the Oct. 28 letter.

A USDA spokeswoman said the Obama administration has made civil rights a top priority and that over the past six years, errors have been corrected and the agency has learned from mistakes.

“We look forward to working further with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and our stakeholders to complete this work and ensure that progress made thus far continues into the next administration,” agency spokeswoman Cathy Cochran said in an email statement.

The caucus said it’s working to ensure Latino communities are represented fairly and that Hispanic farmers and ranchers are made whole from past discrimination. Specifically, the caucus wants to know what steps the agency has taken to address discrimination and what changes the agency has made to ensure compliance with civil rights laws.

Leaders of minority farm and ranch groups called out the Agriculture Department during a national meeting in Albuquerque in September. The groups said claims filed by Latinos and women as part of a $1.3 billion settlement with USDA have been denied at much higher rates than those of other minority groups, including black and Native American farmers who settled following separate class-action lawsuits.

The USDA has argued that it had no role in adjudicating any of the claims, a task that fell to an independent contractor to ensure impartiality. That process was reviewed by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General.

Some caucus members said they get weekly calls from farmers in California and Texas and throughout the country and many talk about battling discrimination. Many of the calls come from farmers who tend to be older, with limited English skills and no email addresses, according to the caucus.

David Sanchez, a New Mexico rancher and vice president of the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association, said he was pleased that the caucus weighed in. He said he hoped the congressional attention would spur more accountability.

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