Bennet: It's Past Time to Call Attention to Indefensible Injustice Committed Against Hispanic Farmers & Ranchers in Colorado

In Speech, Bennet Pushes for Solution to Help Hispanic Farmers Resolve Civil Rights Complaints

In a speech on the Senate floor, Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator for Colorado, called attention to the "indefensible injustices" committed against minority farmers and ranchers in Colorado and across the country. The speech comes on the heels of his letter with Senator Udall urging a swift and equitable resolution of discrimination lawsuits brought by aggrieved Hispanic farmers and ranchers.

In their lawsuit, Garcia v. Vilsack, filed in 2000, these farmers allege that USDA systematically discriminated against them in awarding of agricultural credit and disaster assistance. In his speech, Bennet called on the Administration and Congress to proactively resolve this dispute in a fair and just manner.

A copy of the letter to Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-NY, is available HERE.

A copy of the letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, is available HERE.

Below is a copy of his full speech:

I am very pleased to rise today to join the Senator from New Jersey to discuss the injustices committed against Hispanic farmers over the course of many, many years. I also want to thank Senator Menendez, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and my colleagues who have come to the floor to demonstrate their leadership on this issue. For the reasons that Senator Menendez laid out, it is long past time to call attention to this indefensible injustice and to lend our voices to a better way forward.

As is now well-known, for years, for decades, minority farmers were systematically discriminated against when they visited their local USDA farm service agency office all across this country. They were denied loans and farm program assistance because of their skin color, ethnicity or gender. Senator Menendez did a good job describing the case but I wanted to give you some examples from my state, because in many cases because of this discrimination, Madam President, these farmers lost their livelihoods and their way of life. If we choose to let some of them make their case and deny the chance to others, then we repeat these historic civil rights wrongs all over again.

Among the many letters I've received is a declaration from Mr. Gomez of Alamosa, Colorado, a former USDA employee who served his country for 30 years. In seven pages of excruciating detail, Mr. Gomez explains how he, as a loan officer witnessed discrimination in granting FSA loans. Reasons loans were denied were recorded as "insufficient experience" or other subjective terms. As Mr. Gomez gained more responsibility, he was eventually in a position to review loan
applications from around the region he supervised and became increasingly aware of a pattern of discrimination.

In another letter, Mr. Sandoval of Antonito, Colorado, tells of repeatedly being turned away from local loan offices and denied FSA loans on the grounds that he did not have "the character necessary." Mr. Sandoval explained how his inability to access credit through the USDA limited his ability to grow his farming operation and become a more successful farmer.

Another Mr. Sandoval of Commerce City, Colorado, writes that this has been going on so long that some farmers have lost their lives waiting for justice to prevail. Mr. DeHerrera of also Antonito, Colorado, writes, "In desperation, I approached someone at the FSA to request a loan of approximately $80,000 so I could at least keep the farm from being foreclosed." He told me very hatefully, "They refused to approve either my loan or the loan to the Sandoval brothers. He continues, "I'm convinced the FSA refused to approve the Sandovals' loan because both the buyer and the seller of the farmland to be purchased were Hispanic-American farmers."

Reading through the many letters I've received from Hispanic farmers in Colorado and the meetings I've had all across the state and the letters from people all over the country, a pattern emerges-one of very thinly veiled discrimination that starts by discouraging Hispanic farmers from even applying for FSA loans in the first place.

All too frequently this discrimination resulted in the loss of a farm and the loss of a way of life. I have had farmer after farmer say they had to get out of the business of farming, that they couldn't leave their farms to their children, which is the only dream they have in their life, because of the discrimination they suffered at the hands of our federal government. President Obama's new
Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, has repeatedly, much to his credit, emphasized his commitment to addressing the longstanding civil rights problem that have plagued the department and to charting a new era.

I commend the Secretary's commitment and the dedication the Obama administration has made to chart a new future for the USDA. Yet, that does not fix the wrongs of yesterday. Congress has taken some positive steps and the administration has created a process for resolving the claims of some minority farmers, even dedicating significant funds toward this end, but a path to justice has not yet been charted for Hispanic farmers. The best way America can send a message that our government will not discourage minorities from participating in public programs, will not discriminate against them, is proactively to pursue justice. Madam President, it's time that the administration and congress come together and do more than just acknowledge past wrongdoings at USDA. It's time to address that wrongdoing.

You know, I will say, Madam President, that my predecessor in this job, Ken Salazar, our great senator from Colorado, now our Interior Secretary, comes from a part of my state called the San Luis Valley. Ken Salazar's family settled that land long before Colorado was even a state. If you drive down there and you go visit San Luis, what you will see is that there was an irrigation ditch that was dug before our state was even a state. And the names of the people -- the names of the farmers and ranchers that were entitled to take water from that ditch because they had been there and had been there to dig that ditch, among them is the name Salazar, the proud name Salazar.

It is wrong after generations of people have committed their lives and their families to agriculture in places like Colorado and all across the country that we have -- we have discriminated against them for decades. And when that discrimination had been discovered because of some legal technicality or because they got the wrong judge, they find themselves unable to redress that discrimination.

I'm very pleased to have the chance to be here today with Senator Menendez and other colleagues to call this to the attention of the administration and to say that we need to do more than just acknowledge this. It's time for us to help address the problem.

Thank you.