A Wisconsin federal judge has ordered a temporary halt to a $ 4 billion federal loan relief program aimed at addressing long-standing inequalities for farmers of color after a court challenge by white farmers who argue that politics discriminate against them.
Judge William Griesbach found in an order issued Thursday that white farmers “are likely to be successful on the merits of their claim” that “the US Department of Agriculture’s use of race-based criteria in the program administration violates their right to equal protection. under the law. “
He issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Agriculture Ministry from making loan relief payments.
Department spokesman Matt Herrick told NBC News: “We do not agree with this temporary order and the USDA will continue to vigorously defend our ability to enforce this law of Congress and provide relief. debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers. When the temporary order is lifted, the USDA will be ready to provide debt relief authorized by Congress. “
The plaintiffs in this case, 12 farmers from nine states, had sued the USDA for the estimated $ 4 billion set aside for the cancellation of loans to “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers under the plan. US $ 1.9 trillion bailout signed by President Joe Biden in March. .
The Department of Agriculture has interpreted “socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher” to mean persons “who are one or more of the following: Black / African American, American Indian, Native of Alaska, Hispanic / Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander, ”noted the judge. .
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Washington Post the program was necessary to address long-standing inequalities.
“For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to achieve full success due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt,” said Vilsack.
The Post, citing data from the USDA, reported that only 45,000 of the country’s 3.4 million farmers are black, up from 1 million a century ago.
Department officials said about 17,000 farmers of color are currently eligible for the aid.
In his ruling, Griesbach, who was appointed a judge by George W. Bush, said the USDA was using the wrong benchmarks.
“Aside from a summary of statistical disparities, the defendants have no evidence of intentional discrimination on the part of the USDA in the implementation of recent farm subsidies and pandemic relief efforts,” he said. he writes, describing the policy as “a loan forgiveness program purportedly intended to provide economic assistance to the underprivileged without really considering the financial situation of the applicant.” “
“Congress can implement racially neutral programs to help farmers and ranchers in need of financial assistance, for example by requiring individual determinations of disadvantaged status or by prioritizing loans from farmers and ranchers. breeders who were excluded from previous pandemic aid funding, ”Griesbach wrote. . “But he cannot discriminate on the basis of race.”
Instead of solving one problem, the government was creating another, the judge said.
“The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers on the basis of race or national origin is to order it to stop: not to order it to intentionally discriminate against others. on the basis of their race and national origin. “, wrote Griesbach.
The decision was hailed by Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the conservative Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, which represents white farmers. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the judge recognized that the USDA plan “raises serious constitutional concerns and threatens our customers with irreparable harm.”
The reverse discrimination argument has been embraced by allies of former President Donald Trump, including his former senior adviser Stephen Miller. A legal group founded by Miller and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows is backing action similar to the Wisconsin-Texas lawsuit.